Saturday, July 4, 2009

Michael Duffy, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, and religion as a kind of fizzy diet soda

These files started out long ago - almost a year in fact - in celebration of Michael Duffy, commentariat columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.

While devoted to Mr. Duffy, they were not originated by Mr. Duffy and it soon became apparent that careless readers sometimes confused Mr. Duffy with the authorship of the files by one Dorothy Parker, who though dead, transmigrated to this blog. Though sadly the wit of Dorothy still lies in the grave, and the anonymous loon who abuses her name daily is just a wretch who upsets and alienates a restricted readership on a regular basis.

This confusion - together with Mr. Duffy's disappearance from the scene - lead to a re-titling to the more accurate Loon Pond, but to the relief of the world, the Duffster is now back, and his new column, The modern world depends on God, is a review of God Is Back: How the Global Rise Of Faith Is Changing The World, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. (We used to rate the Duffster's columns on technical merit, but as this is a book review, we'll give up that labored device here).

First to a technical point. In his review, the Duffster makes the following comment:

Micklethwait and Wooldridge are interested to find that the form of Christianity having a lot of success around the world now is American Protestantism, often known as evangelism.

Thereby proving at least one reader of this site isn't given to a close textual reading of this site, or its authorship. But given this, is the Duffster wrong? Should he have said evangelical? Well, and since we love to count the number of angels on a pin, yes and no.

Sure evangelism can refer to the practice of converting people to a religion - not just Christianity but Islam, Judaism, whatever. But it has also found a particular home within Christianity as a term denoting proselytisers, and a particular breed of evangelists who indulge in evangelising within their domestic orbit or embark on missionary activities.

All Christians are supposed to be evangelisers, but the term has also come to stand in the popular mind for the evangelical movement, which began within the protestant movement in the eighteenth century. You might remember evangelicals as the pale wan creatures lurking at the Evangelical Union stand on open day, fixing innocent young freshers with a glittering stare and stopping one of three to proclaim that Christ has risen.

But is the Duffster guilty of a howler? Not really, not so far as common parlance goes. Surely, to those who disagree with evangelicalism as a creed, lumping them in with the evangelicals is offensive. But the words share the same root, and in the old days evangelical was used in a broad sense to refer to either Protestants or Christians in general - Martin Luther referred to the evangelische Kirche as a way of distinguishing Protestants from the Roman church.

Whatever, we're happy with the notion that evangelical and evangelist can equally be used to denounce in your face Christians, but be careful  how you use the terms in a meeting of theologians (theologicians if you must). 

So surely only a technical lapse, and no more a howler than mistaking Michael Duffy for Dorothy Parker.

As for the rest of Duffy's piece, in line with being a book review, it's an examination of the authors' views more than the Duffster's own, and consequently is a disappointing read, since he never really comes to grips with Micklethwait and Wooldridge's alleged rebuttal of the notion that religion is incompatible with modernity and the future will be secular.

In particular because that work is itself a branding exercise aimed at a pre-ordained market in America. Which is why it's a celebration of market-influenced American style Protestantism, when in fact there's no evidence this particular brand of cigarette will ever have any impact in substantial sections of the world, like the odd billion plus Indians or the odd billion plus Chinese who add up to more than the very noisy evangelical crowd or their creation proving dinosaur museums.

In particular you can get evangelicals wildly upset by suggesting Islam is in fact the fastest growing religion, but as the Duffster points out, it's not just Islam that's growing in America in terms of numbers - the fastest growing category in the US at the moment is non-believers. Which forces Micklethwait and Wooldridge to argue from a different basis than numbers:

... which is that religion has returned to the "public space", where people such as intellectuals, politicians and journalists debate and are influenced by the intellectual fashions of the day.

The change began a long time ago but, as the authors note, it was "supercharged" by September 11, 2001. University courses on religion flourish, and God can be discussed in the public space once more. Believers can admit they believe, and even non-believers have realised God matters.

Well I guess you have to establish the specious notion that religion went away - on the basis that The Economist published his obituary in its 2000 millenium edition and similar easy notions - which in turn requires you to forget that Friedrich Nietzsche first announced that god was dead in The Gay Science in 1882:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

But forget all this and the last hundred years or so cogitating on god's death. 

Once you've established that god and religion went away, it's equally convenient to be able to wheel him (or her) back into action after 9/11 - a thesis that's already starting to sound antiquated since George Bush left office and the Islamic Obama came to power (what, he isn't an Islamic? Quick, somebody tell deluded American evangelicals).

Micklethwait and Wooldridge ... believe this is because it (American Protestantism) is particularly suited to the opportunities offered by globalisation - it is, if you like, a fine export product. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the publication for which our authors work has been called the bible of the free market and of globalisation).

Because church and state have been separate in America since the revolution, churches have had to compete for adherents. This has led many to embrace marketing techniques (such as advertising and market research) and technology to a far greater extent than churches in countries that have some degree of state support. As a result, they are far more competitive and entrepreneurial, and the consumers respond accordingly: 44 per cent of Americans embrace a brand of Christianity different to the one they were brought up in.

Which might lead you to think that Hillsong - which has embraced marketing techniques and clap happy worship - is a fine product in Australia, at least if you judge it by sales figures and turnover. That this has little to do with the actual Christ or his actual message is presumably not something to be worried about, in much the same way as in these relativist times, you can't care about the quality of the music provided you ship enough units.

The result of this process, according to our authors, is a superior product, which is now making huge inroads into the market share of the Catholic and other churches in South America, Africa and Asia.

This is interesting, and might provide one answer to the great puzzle of why Christianity has remained more popular in America than in Europe and Australia. Maybe American churches are just better at their job.

Product? Better at their job? I often wonder how Christ would react, if (or when if you're a believer) he returned to earth, and he saw the grotesque marble fit out, stolen from heathens, that's deployed in St. Peters, surely one of the most vulgar exercises in branding the world has seen, or how he would react to the kind of Ponzi prosperity gospel propounded by some of his modern adherents.

Right at the end of his review, the Duffster allows a personal note to slip in:

Another possible reason, implied rather than articulated in the book, is that religion is appealing (as a social and emotional prop) to people whose economic lives have been made more lonely and fraught because of deregulation, free trade and globalisation. If, as many believe, these economic changes are aspects of modernity, it might turn out that modernity, far from killing religion, will need it to survive.

Which is a condescending grace note, when you come to think about it. What to do with lonely and fraught sheep so that the aristocracy can go on living at the top of the heap? Why feed them religion, promise them pie in the sky by and by, and all will be well. It's just a reverse flip on that old Marxist riff Die Religion ... ist das Opium des Volkes.

End result of this version of the debate? Not a new thought on the controversy of evangelists versus secularists, which has been around for more than a few centuries, with each side regularly crying they've won the game, only for the other side to call for a re-match.

It's a bit like attention seeking creationism versus science, with creationism always hoping to gain ground by suggesting that science classes should teach that there's still an argument going on about the theory of evolution. Christopher Hitchens nailed this kind of discourse in The Texas-Size Debate Over Teaching Evolution:

First, they tried to get "secular humanism" classified as a "religion," so that it would meet the First Amendment's disqualification for being taught with taxpayers' money. (That bright idea was Pat Robertson's.) Then they came up with the formulation of "creation science," picking up on anomalies and gaps in evolution and on differences between scientific Darwinists like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. Next came the ingratiating plea for "equal time"—what could be more American than that?—and now we have the rebranded new coinage of "intelligent design" and the fresh complaint that its brave advocates are, so goes the title of a recent self-pitying documentary, simply "expelled" from the discourse.

I guess so long as the argument goes on that religion is just another product to be marketed, packaged, globalized and sold, in a competitive, entrepreneurial way,there's a good chance that Christianity will come to look like a box of cornflakes. And souls the quality of a refined, pulped flake, lacking in fibre and substance.

Which is to say that if this form of Christianity succeeds, it will fail, because it will carry within it the seeds of its destruction.

Which is to say that if you think you can sell religion like bottled and sold like sugary caffeinated soda, or even marketed as a premium form of fat free diet friendly chemicals, you'll end up with gassy fizz and caramelized water. 

If that's the religion of the future, roll out the soma ...

No comments: