Sorry about the semi-long absence...school usually gives me lots to blog about, so since it’s out and finals pretty much drained my brain, I’m gonna be a little light on the blogging. But I wanted to mention my Jerry Falwell book I had to read for a class. Anthropologist Susan Harding followed him around for a few years doing an ethnography about him, his Thomas Road Baptist Church parishioners, and Liberty College. She focused on the language that fundamentalist Christians use, drawing from Foucault a lot. The way she boils everything down to language, plus her lumping together of many kinds of Christians, frankly caused me and another student in the class to have mini-faith crises! It’s okay, we have those every day at Wheaton, but it definitely made us think. Well, that’s another post for another day...
But anyway, Harding discusses how Falwell’s followers assign to him the author function, which works really well within this fundamentalist context. Falwell created and controlled an “empire of words,” built on Biblical language. This empire produced and disseminated rhetoric to millions of people across the United States. According to Foucault, an author is not necessarily an individual that has written a work. Rather, the name of the author signifies a specific mode of discourse, and the things produced by the author, which are works, receive a certain status because of the name with which it is affiliated.
Harding’s ethnography demonstrates that Falwell’s works, whether they were sermons, pamphlets, or books, automatically had a certain status because of their author. The author function in Falwell’s case is striking because fundamentalist Christians insist on a literal interpretation of the Bible, and absolute truth—as well as absolute truthfulness—exist. When Harding examines the works (not necessarily in book form) that Falwell produces, a gap exists between truth and reality. Falwell’s followers, however, continue to accept him as their leader, in spite of the moral ambiguity. Harding discusses how Falwell’s autobiography requires his followers to take leaps of faith. Even beyond his childhood Falwell was embroiled in controversy.
How can this happen? Fundamentalists rely on a “poetics of faith,” meaning that believers place their faith in the inerrancy of the Bible, an inerrancy that extends to preachers as well. The truth that comes from Falwell is mediated, and because of his scandals and moral ambiguities, his truth requires harmonization on the part of believers. Falwell can, in effect, “get away” with things because he is blessed by God, because he too can assume inerrancy. In this context, the author is privileged, that is, whatever comes from Falwell is legitimized, regardless of its accuracy. According to Harding, Falwell’s life stories, his “preacherly discourse,” are a form of “rhetorical art” that increases his church people’s loyalty to him.
Another excellent example of the author function in Falwell’s context occurred when he claimed that he had asked then-President Jimmy Carter why he had homosexuals on staff at the White House. Audiotapes proved otherwise, so Falwell explained that he was speaking in allegorical form. This apocryphal story highlight the author function that Falwell has assumed, because his followers notice the discrepancies, yet continue to be loyal to him. Because Falwell is a man of God, ordained and blessed by God, the works that he contributes to the overall discourse do not have to be literally true.
Yet another interesting event happened in the 1960’s, when Falwell distributed a sermon pamphlet titled “Ministers and Marchers” that insisted Christians be separate from the world. When his discourse started to move away from separatism and toward active political engagement, he tried to collect the pamphlets, officially rejecting his earlier position and pronouncing it “false prophecy.” None of Falwell’s sermons from the 1950’s and ‘60’s are in his archives. His staff told Harding that he did not want his words to be used against him, since his positions had certainly changed. In fact, Falwell supported segregation and had preached sermons in favor of it during the late 1950’s.
These incidents demonstrate the powerful author function that Falwell had through his words. He attempted to control the discourse, and in doing so fashioned a national following, rather than one that was limited to the South. He knew the power of words, carefully allowing what his community heard or read. It was not as if his community did not know of his earlier positions; rather, his followers re-construed these seemingly contrary facts to fit in with other things that Falwell had authored.
So, was anyone else thinking that President Bush has also assumed this author function? In spite of his untruthfulness, discrepancies, etc., he still has people defending him. W too can get away with things—he is blessed and ordained, right?! And as in the case with Jerry Falwell, W's followers, many holding to a literal interpretation of the Bible, ignore or harmonize his gaps between truth and reality, his “moral ambiguities.” So it seems our president too assumes inerrancy?