Todd kindly provided me a copy of David Fitch's The End of Evangelicalism for review, so here is the first part, albeit long overdue. The 100+ pages of law school reading each week won out over the summer, unfortunately.
I broke up my discussion into several posts, because this book has joined the likes of Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in terms of reshaping my thinking. Also, I've been interested, for the past 7-8 years, in the same ideas that Fitch criticizes, so I found myself amen-ing and underlining on nearly every page. Since I started the book, it's hard not to notice in headlines the very things Fitch deconstructs, so I want to throw in some examples outside the book. Therefore, I simply could not do it justice in one post. My review(s) will also be posted here, and be sure to check out other reviews there as well.
Fitch uses the work of political and cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek (who in turn relies on Hegel) to perform a political analysis of evangelicalism. The term "political" here means how and why evangelicals have come together, and how we practice our beliefs. Specifically, Fitch explores, and then deconstructs, three predominant elements of evangelicalism: belief in an inerrant Bible, the decision for Christ, and the notion of a Christian nation.
These three elements today actually "mean very little for how we live our day-to-day lives as evangelical Christians." (p. xxii). However, they form a patchwork group of what would otherwise be disparate Christians, because we are all free to define these terms in our own way, yet we think we've all defined them the same way. Formation of such a large, seemingly unified, and powerful group initially helped evangelicalism's rise in North America and elsewhere. But as Fitch shows,
evangelicalism, in reaction to the modern-fundamentalist controversies, pursued a strategy for survival via a defense based in the autonomous structures of modern reason and politics. In the process, we gave up the true core of our Christian politics--the person and work of Jesus Christ--and set ourselves up for a fall by in essence becoming a form of "religious ideology." We in essence emptied our social politic of its core in Jesus Christ for a politics buttressed by the temporary structures of modernity. (p. 17).
I would love to spend more time delving into Zizek's analytical tools, but I wouldn't do them justice. Fitch describes Zizek's theories as "doing therapy upon an entire culture," so it's a broad undertaking (p. 20). Zizek assumes that all systems are linguistic structures, and ideologies serve a cynical function: they appease us and make us feel better about ourselves, and we ascribe to these ideologies fully knowing this. Ideology gives us a "Big Other to believe in and assuage our guilt while [...] we are content with the status quo. Ideology provides a big lie with which we can all cooperate in order to keep our lives going" (p. 24).
One basic concept in Zizek's framework is the master signifier, which is a conceptual object to which we give our allegience, thus enabling groups to form. These master signifiers are empty, because they are often nebulous, vague, and serve as an orientation point so we think we all believe in the same thing. Fitch isolates three of evangelicalism's master signifiers: an inerrant Bible, the decision for Christ, and the Christian nation.
Another basic concept is the irruption of the Real. Irrupt means to burst or break through, and that is exactly what certain events do to expose the emptiness of the master signifiers. Zizek defines them as excessive episodes that reveal the drives and contradictions that underlie our ideology. Overidentification and jouissance are two forms of irruptions. Overidentification happens when an ideology is taken too seriously, thus showing how absurd it is (hello Stephen Colbert!). Jouissance, on the other hand, is the enjoyment that holds us together under an ideology. It's an irrational, perverse type of enjoyment, but is focused on an objet petit a. For example, many U.S. Americans "enjoy" aiming their vengeance at Islamic fundamentalists, who become our objet petit a, while American evangelicals direct their perverse enjoyment toward railing against liberals and the LGBTQ community.
To Zizek, once the irruption of the Real occurs, there is nothing at the core. But Christians hold that our life here is not empty at its core, for we form our lives around the fullness of Christ. However, the way we are "enjoying" some of the cornerstones of our beliefs may be preventing us from fully articulating a politic that is faithful to Christ. Up next: the inerrant Bible.
As an aside, today I started Christian Smith's The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, and it is already looking like an excellent complement to Fitch's chapter on inerrancy-as-master-signifier. Or rather, maybe Smith's book will help expose a breaking-through, or irruption, of evangelicalism's contradictions about the Bible?