In an oft-quoted passage in his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), poet and author James Agee pleads with the reader not to exalt his work as “Art”:
Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor. Swift, Blake, Beethoven, Christ, Joyce, Kafka, name me a one who has not been thus castrated. Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas.
Agee so wanted his journalistic descriptions of the lives of poor Southern farmers during the Dustbowl to hit the reader like a blow between the eyes, and not to be damned with praise as a literary classic. Art can be so safely kept at a distance, or dissected in a post-mortem examination. The world venerates beatifies, or even canonizes its great intellects, reformers, and saints, especially when they remain safely dead.
At the end of Bernard Shaw’s Nobel-Prize-winning play, the dead Joan of Arc appears before the assembled cast to receive word that, after a safe interval of 500 years, the Church has finally declared her a saint. All the characters kneel and praise her. In disgust she recoils, “Woe unto me when all men praise me! I bid you remember that I am a saint, and that saints can work miracles. And now tell me: shall I rise from the dead, and come back to you a living woman?”
Suddenly, all her worshippers cringe with horror and manage, piously, to evade the question. Fumbling, too, for a response, the Pope’s emissary bows and quickly exits, saying, “The possibility of your resurrection was not contemplated in the recent proceedings for your canonization. I must return to Rome for fresh instructions.”
Was this not what Jesus meant when he castigated the Pharisees for building tombs for the prophets? That they did homage to the messenger, while quietly smothering the message.
Woe to you…You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, “If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.
Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard made himself notorious for pointing out the uncomfortable disconnect between true Christianity and its idiot brother, Christendom, or the established Church.
It is well known that Christ consistently used the expression “follower.” He never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for…Christ claimed to be the way and the truth and the life (Jn 14:6). For this reason he could never be satisfied with adherents who accepted his teaching—especially with those who in their lives ignored it or let things take their usual course. His whole life on earth, from beginning to end, was destined to have followers and to make admirers impossible.
Christ came into the world with the purpose of saving, not instructing it… A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires.
To want to admire instead of to follow Christ is not necessarily an invention by bad people. No, it is more an invention by those who spinelessly keep themselves detached, who keep themselves at a safe distance. Admirers are related to the admired only through the excitement of the imagination. To them he is like an actor on the stage except that, this being real life, the effect he produces is somewhat stronger. But for their part, admirers make the same demands that are made in the theater: to sit safe and calm…
If you have any knowledge at all of human nature, who can doubt that Judas was an admirer of Christ!…It is just as easy to reckon as the stars that those who only admire the truth will, when danger appears, become traitors. [from Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity]
Christ’s claim is absolute and exclusive; it is dangerous, incendiary. As Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Yet the world fights back with all its energy, determined to find a way to peacefully coexist with Christ, to gain this world and heaven too; not to crucify him publicly, but to drown him with lip-service. Today, doubtless, the Danish philosopher might marvel, not at how many souls have been baptized, but rather at how many have done so while managing to get none of it on them.
For Kierkegaard, with official state patronage the New Testament gospel experienced a thermidorian reaction, which overthrew Christ’s radical demands. Instead the “moneychangers” co-opted it, and Christianity was thus “improved practically.”
Christ was not making a historical observation when he declared: The gospel is preached to the poor…No, for the poor the gospel is the good news because to be unfortunate in this world… is a sign of God’s nearness…But soon there came a change. When preaching the gospel became a livelihood [ouch], even a lush livelihood, then the gospel became good news for the rich and for the mighty…Christianity thus ceased to be glad tidings for those who suffer, a message of hope that transfigures suffering into joy, but a guarantee for the enjoyment of life intensified and secured by the hope of eternity. [from Kierkegaard, Journals & Papers]
Looking at the contemporary religious landscape here in America, especially during this election year—in which candidates have co-opted Christ, covering themselves with a thin veneer of Scripture while using the cross to bamboozle the Booboisie, as well as to promote hate, intolerance, racism, and selfish greed—one might wish that Kierkegaard were here that he might use his sharper quill to puncture a few well-deserving hot air balloons.
The Church Militant, which was once a term to describe the suffering and persecuted church on earth, has now taken on a new meaning, as we see the church used and manipulated to further the ambitions of American militarism and exceptionalism. It is scandalous to watch the church again and again being used in this way, as a mascot for the American war machine, but then, this is nothing new. Long ago, Christ was co-opted by Empire to serve as a standard for its legions. As Kierkegaard puts it, “Christianity received its first blow when the emperor became a Christian.”
There was a time when the world wanted to fight Christianity—then Christianity fought back. Now the world is in fraudulent possession of Christianity. Its tactics are with all its power and at any price to prevent a showdown…for the technique consists in the world continually counterfeiting Christ’s position so that it is kind of saying the same thing—but good God, then the world and Christ are agreed!
The state never accommodates Christianity in its truth (as salt in character); it rather has it up to a point, which we ‘Christians’ are also happy to have. [Journals & Papers]
As theologian Robert Kolb notes ironically, “Of all the places to search for God, the last place most people would think to look is the gallows.” The problem could be traced to a simple human trait that we all share: an unwillingness to suffer pain, rejection, ridicule, poverty. Wasn’t it one of Jesus’ own disciples who rebuked him, “Never, Lord! This will never happen to you!”? And after 2000 years, little has changed, for human nature has not changed. The cross remains an offense, a scandal to the mind, an object of loathing to the flesh.
In his Heidelberg Disputation (1518), Martin Luther makes a clear distinction between the “theologian of glory” and the “theologian of the cross.”
That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
Alister McGrath writes, “The ‘theologian of glory’ expects God to be revealed in strength, glory and majesty, and is simply unable to accept the scene of dereliction on the cross as the self-revelation of God.” Nevertheless,
“God works in a paradoxical way sub contrariis: his strength lies hidden under apparent weakness; his wisdom under apparent folly…the future glory of the Christian under his present sufferings. It will therefore be clear that there is a radical discontinuity between the empirically perceived situation and the situation as discerned by faith.” [Luther’s Theology of the Cross]