Symposium Introduction

Panelists

Peter J. Leithart

David W. Opderbeck

Jana Bennett

Sarah Morice Brubaker

William Desmond

Overview

Spectacles designed to capture our attention surround us. Marketing, movies, shopping malls, concerts, and virtual realities capture our imaginations and cultivate our desires. We live in a “society of the spectacle” However, is the power and prevalence of spectacle unique to the modern era? In the pages of Gifts Glittering and Poisoned, early Christian voices echo across the centuries to show that the society of the spectacle is not new. Our era resembles a time when the spectacular entertainments of ancient Rome had a profound effect on every aspect of social life. By drawing on the rich theology and witness of early Christianity, Gifts Glittering and Poisoned asks what it means for us to live in a new era of empire and spectacle. Through Augustine’s description of the demonic, it shows how consumerism constructs a sophisticated symbolic order, a “society of the spectacle” that corrupts our deepest longings for God.

About the Author

Chanon Ross, PhD, is Director of the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Endorsements

”Gifts Glittering and Poisoned is an astonishing read–and an interdisciplinary tour de force that establishes Chanon Ross as one of the most exciting practical theologians of his generation. Dense and delicious as chocolate lava cake, this book begs to be savored, line by unexpected line, as Ross reveals his unflinching gift for seeing our contemporary reflection in the ancient Roman culture of spectacle. Gifts Glittering and Poisoned is a dizzying and exhilarating ride through pagan metaphysics, Augustinian views on the demonic, Abercrombie and Fitch, ecstasy, vampires, Coldplay, exorcism, American politics, and the Eucharist’s power to turn human consumption on its ear. These pages left me breathless, convicted, and hopeful. Prepare to be amazed.”
Kenda Creasy Dean, Princeton Theological Seminary

”Gifts Glittering and Poisoned offers spot-on theology for the contemporary church, a church disenchanted with disenchantment but so often unaware of the idols by which we are bound. Ross takes us on a journey of the spectacular from Augustine to Bono, and he has the theological and spiritual insight to provide us with a sure guide along the way.”
Beth Felker Jones, Wheaton College

”Chanon Ross sees connections the rest of us cannot–between spectacle, then and now, between metaphysics and youth culture, between postmodern theology and demons (of all things!). But once he shows us, we cannot not see them. This book shows the mind of a theologian and the heart of a pastor.”
Jason Byassee, Duke Divinity School

Jana Bennett

Response

Is America Rome?

Introduction

GIFTS GLITTERING AND POISONED is Chanon Ross’s well-written and forceful demonstration that for all that our contemporary world would like to believe it operates on principles of reason and autonomy, which require leaving behind the superstitions, demons, and transcendences of an older, less rational, more religious world, it has failed.

Ross demonstrates this failure by thinking through the concept of “spectacle” as it arises in Rome, then as it develops in America, all the while raising critiques of spectacle from early Christian sources, from the fifth-century bishop Augustine of Hippo, and by way of contemporary philosophy. All of these considerations lead to helpful thoughts on metaphysics (or, indeed, the way Americans presume to deny metaphysics).

Through his discussion, Ross shows that we still reside in a superstitious world. For example: we believe we have an infinite array of choices, wrought by our particular rational view of the world. We believe that the marketplace exists merely to give us those choices. We think that the demonic doesn’t exist, and that we are capable of achieving our own destinies. We think media spectacles are made for our own entertainment and don’t intimately affect our ability to see the world and interact with others.

His discussion is one toward which I have great sympathy, and yet, as I shall discuss below, I am concerned about so closely connecting ancient Roman spectacle to contemporary American consumer proclivities. First, however, I describe Ross’s argument in more detail.

“Spectacle, Empire, and Metaphysics”

Ross first shows that spectacle—the violent gladiator shows and the consumer spending that went along with those shows—played a significant role in Rome and its politics, shoring up emperor rule, class divisions, and Roman sensibilities about what was, and was not, good. Spectacle included public executions that “marginalizes the victim and displays him as an abomination” (31), reinforcing both the crowd’s and the government’s senses of superiority. Spectacle also conjured religious ritual and sacrifice to the point that “the unity of spectacle and religion provided a powerful mechanism for assimilating provincial peoples. It was an especially important means of socialization in the early empire when emperors and governors were establishing Roman authority” (30). Roman emperors and others would pay for exorbitant feasts for the crowds that flocked to the spectacles, conspicuous consumption that drew all socioeconomic classes together, united in desire for the feasts and the violence.

Ross argues (using Sam Wells’ improvisational language) that Jesus Christ “overaccepts” Rome’s spectacle. He, too, is publicly executed, mocked, and marginalized, yet he becomes the supreme spectacle who gives his very life for us. Jesus’ own Eucharistic meal that draws together people of all nations and socioeconomic classes, is a simple meal of love that stands in stark contrast to the Roman shows (41). Jesus turns the violent thrust of spectacle on its head, thereby creating a decisive turn against the politics and economics of his day, and showing us all that in fact, what we truly desire is God.

Augustine, who describes the spectacles of his own fifth-century Roman North Africa, readily sees how Jesus provides a contrast to the world’s blood-soaked desire for consumption, and power. Christians consume Christ’s body and blood, uniting themselves to the church and not the Roman Empire. Augustine also helps sort through Roman demonology; demons were linked to the passions of the soul and ruled by desires. Ross uses Augustine to suggest that spectacle-goers were indulging demons of desire at the ampitheatre.

Ross suggests that America has deliberately followed in Rome’s footsteps, developing a world of spectacle that shores up political and economic institutions. He mentions the 2010 exhibit at the United States National Constitution Center called “Ancient Rome and America” that asked its viewers to consider how the United States was “built in the image of Rome” (61). Ross takes the conclusions of that exhibit further to suggest how contemporary politics is built on media spectacles that are connected to the Roman spectacles. Of course, we readers might readily see that Donald Trump presents precisely that kind of celebrity-linked-to-politics in the present presidential race.

Ross offers several examples for how desire and spectacle function in American culture: Americans know very little about their own government, such as what the three branches are, but two-thirds can name the judges on American Idol (68). Ross also describes Coldplay and U2 concerts where the ecstasy of spectacle shapes and consumes us (132–34). We become conspicuous consumers of spectacle, seeking after our own demonic desires. These are the desires that marketing, media, and those with political and economic power cultivate in us.

Using philosophers like Kant and Nietzsche, Ross shows how our philosophical views lead toward seeing that our desires are merely competing in a power game that can only be won if we let each person seek his or her own desires insofar as those desires do not affect others’ abilities to seek their own desires. Americans forget that desire has an end—and that the predominating end in American culture is that our impulses to satisfy our consumer desires merely shore up the political and economic interests of people in power.

Americans likewise forget that there is an alternative story for our desires. As in ancient Rome, Jesus Christ offers a way for us to overaccept the contemporary rendition of spectacle, and to partake in the ecstasy of the Eucharist as a counter-witness and counter-politics. We can renounce the demons of desire that form and shape our world, and put on Christ instead (105–6).

The America ≈ Rome Trope

I’m highly sympathetic to Ross’s claims. He is exactly right to highlight our contemporary metaphysical troubles and expose them as features of American consumer culture, which are wrapped into our political and economic schematics.

However, I tend to be suspicious of America-is-Rome claims, or even simply America-is-similar-to-Rome claims, because I think there are some serious theological and ethical consequences in doing so. Ross, more than most, has done a good job of almost—almost—convincing me of the Rome-America connection. Since I don’t often get a chance to discuss my concerns, I’ll use this space here to raise questions for Ross, but also for anyone else wanting to describe late capitalist America as another Rome.

First, however, let me be clear on what my critique does not include. I think we can and should read histories and do historical work. I think we can learn from those histories, within some limits—where we have come from and how the past continues to shape and mold society. I think that learning history can help us become better people, or at least try. I think it is possible to argue that the past has analogues that we can use to think more about our own culture. I think we can also philosophically wonder about the weird nature of time and the question of whether past, present, and future exist, impinge on each other, and what those terms mean.

All of what I have suggested about how we can use history and think about time is present in Ross’s work, with great effect. Yet, where I think a line gets overstepped—by Ross, by the 2010 National Constitution exhibit he describes, by some of the philosophers he mentions—is to name America as the new Rome, to see the two as inseparably linked, perhaps even to the point of seeing America as simply an iteration of Rome.

Naming America as the New Rome happens in several ways. The most explicit example in Ross’s book is the chart he provides to show how modern marketing and Augustine’s description of the Roman coliseum make use of the same images and words to demonstrate how desire functions in both cultures: drink, thirst, gulp, pictures, eyes, gaze (82). Ross also uses thinking from others similarly disposed, such as Peter Sloterdijk, to say, “Sufficient account has yet to be given of the face that the strongest symbol and media of ancient mass culture—I am speaking of the Roman arena—actually only made a comeback in the twentieth century” (62). Ross continues Sloterdijk’s line of thought to suggest, “In some way, American democracy has actually surpassed Rome in uniting spectacle and politics” (63).

Moreover, it isn’t simply that we can learn from Rome’s mistakes, Rome appears to be patterned after us in some instances. For example, Ross suggests that when we too much take up liberal views of freedom, “we repeat the mistakes of Rome’s society of consumption and excess” (66), which suggests that somehow Rome also indulged in America’s particular version of liberal freedom. There are other places I could name—both in Ross’s own work, but also in similar kinds of stories elsewhere.

There are two main theological/ethical reasons why the America ≈ Rome trope concerns me.

The first is that the version of history that seems to be supported by the trope looks cyclical in nature. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus was famous for understanding history as cyclical, that we humans are set to repeat the shape of events over and over again. America becomes Rome in the cycle, simply another epic empire repeating the rise and fall of Rome.

Understanding history as cyclical works against Ross’s central argument, on my view. The endless consumer desire he seeks to critique operates in cyclic fashion too, with scarce attention to the ends of that desire. One of the points of seeing God as our end, our purpose, is that the nature of time gets reshaped; depending on the historian or theologian, history becomes a line, or it becomes cruciform. All time moves toward God, has its end in God. We are not fated to repeat a historical cycle any more than we are destined to seek fulfillment of an endless succession of desire; rather, we have the hope of salvation in Jesus Christ, which fact puts us on a path toward God rather than a hamster wheel of desire. Thus, my historiographical concern yields to theological concerns: thinking about Rome as analog can do some helpful work, but thinking of America as just another iteration of Rome is theologically harmful to our descriptions of God and the world.

Second, I wonder what is thereby being left overlooked, especially in a book such as this one that provides a hearty critique of contemporary consumer society. Now, this critique is admittedly not fair in one sense, because all writing necessarily leaves important points overlooked. We choose to focus on one or two aspects of a story in order to learn well from those aspects, and not because we expect to have told the whole story.

That said, when we are dealing with popular ways of examining society—such as the America ≈ Rome trope—I do think it is important to have extra care about what can get lost in the examination.

To illustrate the problem, let me turn first to a different popular trope in theological discourse: the Nazis. The America ≈ Rome trope functions a bit like the Nazis function in contemporary ethical thought. The Nazis become the shining example to trot out for all manner of concerns: patriotism, eugenics, genocide, violence, freedom, choice, and so on. The Nazis have become a shorthand in theological/ethical discussions for all that is evil; my students use the Nazis often, but so do my colleagues. Indeed, I suspect that much of theology in the late twentieth century is an attempt in some way to prevent us becoming like the Nazis again.

I hasten to say, I seek to avoid Naziism. My concern is not that we cease to investigate Naziism, nor that we name it as evil, but that while the ostensible war against the Nazis ended seventy-five years ago, many other unspeakable tragedies have occurred since. Rwanda, Syria, Bosnia, North Korea, Chile, and yes, the United States, are all places where evil has happened, genocide has occurred, eugenic thinking has held, violence has been done. But when we can use the Nazis, I worry we conveniently forget the evils directly present, and instead rest on the thought that because our contemporary eugenics program doesn’t look a bit like the Nazis’ eugenics program, we are “good.”

So what gets overlooked if we overstep and presume that if Rome has spectacle, then America, too, has spectacle? Do we perhaps allow ourselves to circumvent those things that do not look “glittering”—things like the boring drivel of corporate life, which most often shows on no stage. In corporate America, we have the decidedly un-glittering, unsexy, but no less concerning cubicle-confined workers who are supposed to be grateful for their jobs even as they have little vacation, sick pay, or parental leave; workers whose employers demean workers’ intelligence and free will by using pictures instead of words to communicate how an Americano is supposed to be made; part-timers who are given the maximum number of part-time hours so as to avoid paying benefits. Sex and social media glitter for us, precisely to keep us from seeing the non-spectacles at work elsewhere.

Conclusion

To sum up: I think that Chanon Ross’s work should be read and pondered, not least for his important discussion of contemporary metaphysics and for his description of how Jesus overaccepts the glittering poisons our society gives us, and enables us salvation from those poisons. I look forward to further conversation about historiography of Rome, theology, and ethics.

  • Chanon Ross

    Chanon Ross

    Reply

    Then and Now

    I am grateful that Jana Bennett finds much in Gifts Glittering and Poisoned to appreciate despite her significant reservations about the relationship of Rome to America. I am eager to discuss with her what seem to be fundamentally different perspectives on the ways ancient history can and should relate to the modern present. She says that I “almost” convinced her of a connection between Rome and America. Perhaps I still can.

    Bennett likens the way I connect America and Rome to the ways Nazism functions as an anti-type in contemporary ethical discourse. She observes how “the Nazis become the shining example to trot out for all manner of concerns: patriotism, eugenics, genocide, violence, freedom, choice, and so on . . . for all that is evil.” For example, anyone familiar with news media has witnessed how easily pundits, politicians, and commentators role rhetorical comparisons to “the Nazis” when trying to undermine their ideological opponents. She rightly notes that such broad comparisons amount to mere “tropes” that lose sight of important distinctions and differences. Bennett is certainly not charging me with being a pundit, but she worries that my comparison of Rome and America functions similarly, namely, as a “trope” that may be rhetorically compelling but lacks substantial connection.

    Her concern has less to do with my book in particular and more to do with the comparisons of Rome and America in general. She says, “I tend to be suspicious of America-is-Rome claims, or even simply America-is-similar-to-Rome claims” and she notes that other scholars make the same mistake when they use the America-Rome “trope.”

    I found it significant that Bennett applies this suspicion to the “Ancient Rome and America” exhibit of the National Constitution Center, which I describe briefly in Gifts Glittering and Poisioned. The National Constitution Center is part of Independence Mall complex with Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. It was established by Congress as a “national town hall,” a hub for civic education, and to host scholars and public dialogue about the United States Constitution. The “Ancient Rome and America” exhibit, which was presented in 2010, took three years to curate, occupied eight thousand square feet, included hundreds of artifacts, and was designed to show the concrete and historic connections between Rome and America. It demonstrated the ways those connections inform American government, laws, politics, economy, and social life. The scientists, historians, and other scholars who created the exhibit at the National Constitution Center were not merely employing a “trope.” They were educating the American public about the concrete Roman origins of the United States and the ways the American founders intentionally crafted their new government and society in the image of Rome.

    Consider, as one of many examples, the Romanesque architecture of Washington, DC, which reflects one of the many ways America was created to be a reiteration of the Roman Republic. The Architect of the Capitol (AOC) is the official government agency charged with maintenance, operation, development and preservation of the 17.4 million square feet and 553 acres that constitute the United States Capitol (www.aoc.gov.) They state that “Thomas Jefferson wanted Congress housed in a replica of an ancient Roman temple” because “the U.S. Capitol’s designs . . . evoke the [Greco-Roman] ideals that guided the nation’s founders as they framed their new republic.” I don’t have space to elucidate here all the historic and political material connecting Rome and America, but I want to ask Bennett why she’s not quite convinced of the concrete and historical Rome-America connection? For me, the question is not whether there is a connection between Rome and America, but the form and significance of the connection.

    Bennett suggests that I commit anachronism when I “suggest that somehow Rome also indulged in America’s particular version of liberal freedom.” This is not the case, and in my defense, I refer Bennet to A History of Ancient Rome, a new book by Cambridge University Classics scholar Mary Beard in which Beard describes what modern liberal society has inherited from its Roman forebearers. In an interview with Salon (who describes Beard as “outspoken feminist, and slayer of Internet trolls”), Beard says, “What the Romans constructed was a version of civil liberties that we’ve inherited—what are the rights of the citizen against the power of the state? What about the right of the citizen to trial, to no arbitrary punishment—that’s an issue we face with terrorism every day now. As the Romans did: What’s the clash between the demands of homeland security and rights of the individual? We haven’t solved that, and they hadn’t solved that.”

    (The Salon article from November 28, is available here.)

    I’m not sure whether Bennett thinks the argument in Gifts Glittering and Poisoned requires a circular view of history because it’s a trope, or whether a circular view of history makes it a trope. Either way, I am curious since I never mention a circular view of history in the book, and I have no stake in advocating nor defending such a view. But I am invested in a historic notion of sin to the extent sin is as real today as it ever was, and that scripture and the witness of the early Christians is as relevant now as ever. It should not surprise us that a society intentionally modeled after Rome (like America) would exhibit some of the same cultural and social proclivities for spectacle and consumption. One of the key arguments of my book is that what we experience today as a “society of consumption” is not completely new and, to a certain extent, has Rome as a precedent. This was not my original insight. It was the insight of classical historian Paul Plass who observed that in the first-century Dio described Roman society as obsessed with spectacle and “analisken” which means “consumption”—in other words, Dio insightfully noted how spectacle and mass consumption existed in a mutually reinforcing relationship in Rome. In studying Dio’s ancient description, Plass observes, “The rate or scale of consumption became and index of symbolic value. . . . The implicit commodification [of Roman spectacle entertainment] brings to mind the revealing use of ‘waste.’ . . . In lending itself to extravagance, consumption [in Rome] acquires a broader, symbolic social meaning beyond considerations purely of quantity.” This quote is found on page 40 of Gifts Glittering and Poisioned where readers can find an extended discussion (and many examples) of the nature of Rome’s culture of consumption and spectacle.

    I am not saying that Rome and America are identical or that America is an exact reiteration of Rome. But I am saying (with the basic facts of history) that the Founders of the American Republic were, in certain ways, designing their new republic in the image of Rome. My book explores some of the subsequent resonances between the “ancient then” and the “modern now” in order to hear the echoes of early Christian voices anew. My reading of Roman history is substantial. It follows ancient primary sources and classical historians very closely. I would be more than happy to discuss the significance of the connection between Rome and of the ways I make such connections. Some of them may resonate more than others, but I must insist that the connection between Rome and America in my book (and in exhibits like those at the National Constitution Center) is more than a “trope.”

    • Jana Bennett

      Jana Bennett

      Reply

      To Learn from the Nuances of History

      Thanks, Chanon, for the hearty engagement and response. I’m willing to grant that Chanon’s discussion is not a “trope”. That said, I’m still unconvinced, even and especially because of the two primary examples he raises and holds up.
      He asks “why she’s not quite convinced of the concrete and historical Rome-America connection?” It is not that I am unconvinced there’s a concrete connection—as I mention in my post, discussing historical narratives and naming ourselves in relation to them is important. It is more that I’m concerned about the predominant ways that the historical and concrete connections get narrated—and what gets lost in those narrations. So I think we actually agree when Chanon writes, “For me, the question is not whether there is a connection between Rome and America, but the form and significance of the connection.”
      So for example, when it comes to the National Constitution Center exhibit, I think it’s fascinating that the exhibit aims at describing “the concrete Roman origins of the United States and the ways the American founders intentionally crafted their new government and society in the image of Rome”—romanesque architecture for one. However, though there is clearly intentional crafting, it is also crucial to look at ways in which the founders aimed at Roman images, but failed. Or, to examine what was intentionally left out. The Roman connection, held too highly, can make us not see forms of spectacle that I think are present in contemporary corporate office spaces, for example—in the cubicles that promote a kind of “Death Star” spectacle that is at least as troubling as the kinds of spectacle Ross mentions in the book.
      Too, the discussion of Mary Beard’s book mostly makes me suspicious, again along some of the lines I state above. She suggests, 
      “What the Romans constructed was a version of civil liberties that we’ve inherited—what are the rights of the citizen against the power of the state? What about the right of the citizen to trial, to no arbitrary punishment—that’s an issue we face with terrorism every day now. As the Romans did: What’s the clash between the demands of homeland security and rights of the individual? We haven’t solved that, and they hadn’t solved that”
      Well, wait a minute. I’m willing to say there are parallels and similar language games at work (at times)—but what does it mean to so closely compare homeland security with what the Romans did? What gets left out? For example, the “Right of the citizen to trial” is a right that has had its own ups and downs and crisis points at various times in US history as well as beforehand. It has a range of serious nuances that cannot be seen when we just simply say: “That is like what we face with terrorism.” Or, “We haven’t solved that . . .”
      Perhaps so—at a very bald level. But have we solved the question of, say, “no to arbitrary punishment” at some times and places? (I would say, sometimes we have.) I think so often we have much more to learn from the nuances of history than from broad comparisons—not that we can’t learn from both methods. But as I said in my review essay, I think the nuances might help us see some of the other spectacles that we just don’t see if we’re going “broad” rather than “deep.”
    • Chanon Ross

      Chanon Ross

      Reply

      Spectacle, Old and New

      Thanks Jana. I agree wholeheartedly that things unsaid are as important as things said. So what aspects of Roman society did the American founders intentionally leave out? That would certainly make for an interesting project, and it would shed light on America as a phenomenon distinct from its ancient Roman predecessor. A study about the differences would implicitly be about how the similarities, and my study is the inverse of this: the differences between America and Rome are what make the remarkable similarities I point to interesting. (Or at least, that why they are interesting for me.)   I think it relatively apparent that we smart-phone carrying moderns are different than our ancient predecessors, so when we see significant similarities it tells us something about ourselves.

      I’m not sure that my study is “broad rather than deep.” Ultimately, my point is not that America is broadly like Rome, but that our contemporary consumer culture shares with ancient Rome a particular phenomenon, which is a love of spectacle. Seeing this particular commonality and its importance in Rome reveals something has not yet been recognized by biblical scholars, theologians, philosophers, and others: namely, the relationship between Christ’s cross and the Coliseum. In other words, my analysis shows how Rome’s spectacle entertainments are an important historical context for the crucifixion of Jesus, and without this realization we are missing a very important part of the story. I do this by showing how early Christians wrote about and understood Christ’s cross as spectacle (and as counter-spectacle). Their interest in the cross as spectacle was both political and theological, and because I am a theologian (who is interested in history’s relation to the present), I suggest that the insights of early Christians about spectacle can inform how modern Christians think about contemporary manifestations of spectacle. In some cases, the connections I draw are relatively straightforward (like when Madonna reenacted the Roman pompa at the Super Bowl by dressing up as a Goddess carried by Roman soldiers). In other cases, the connections are more complex (like the relationship between modern marketing and Augustine’s description of the demonic). Ultimately, I’m interested in the phenomenon of spectacle from both ancient and modern perspectives, and I’m interested in the ways those perspectives inform Christian discipleship today.

Response

The Eucharist Is Our Arbor Day

“OH NO!” I SAID to my husband as I read the back cover of Chanon Ross’s Gifts Glittering and Poisoned: Spectacle, Empire, and Metaphysics, “I think it’s one of those Eucharist-is-our-Arbor-Day books.” For there is a running joke among some of us who have maxed out on anti-Enlightenment theological swagger. Weary of the theological maneuver in which the Eucharist is held up as The Subverter of All Things Modern and Therefore Bad—employed by those who say things like, “The Eucharist is our Thanksgiving!” right as the turkey comes out of the oven, for instance—some of us have begun muttering things like, “The Eucharist is our Arbor Day!” or, “The Eucharist is our Final Four!” or, “The Eucharist is our pumpkin spice!” or, “The Eucharist is our Nickelback!”

(At the risk of stating the obvious, let me quickly add that I realize there are important criticisms to be leveled against the Final Four, pumpkin spice, Nickelback, and the Thanksgiving holiday. And possibly Arbor Day, though I confess they escape me at the moment.)

But I know Chanon Ross, and I know how thoughtful he is. So I ought to have known better. Does Gifts Glittering and Poisoned posit the Eucharist as both rejoinder and remedy? Yes. But Ross does not simply lay the Eucharistic elements on the table like a royal flush in a game of Texas Hold ’Em. For Ross, thank God, is not playing Texas Hold ’Em. He is not attempting to destroy opponents, score one for Team Jesus, forge a theological armor that modernity’s arrows cannot pierce, pant-hoot at rivals who would challenge his dominance, or make sure the other guy blinks first.

Ross is doing ministry. Gifts Glittering and Poisoned is a ministry book.

Granted, it doesn’t announce itself as such, at all. (For one thing, it has the word metaphysics in the title.) Indeed, one critique I have is that the book would make more sense, methodologically, if it divulged its specific pastoral concerns from the get-go. Despite this circumspection, there are certain tells: Ross’s choice of examples, the end-of-chapter summaries meant to help non-specialists along rather than weed them out, and most of all Ross’s own vast expertise in youth ministry. Ross directs the Institute of Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, has served as a youth minister, and has written and presented extensively on ministry and youth culture.

So, Dear Reader, if you read Gifts Glittering and Poisoned—as I hope you do—please do not make the mistake of approaching it as a set of arguments that simply bubbled up from a fissure in the theological water table. The book is best appreciated as a gracious theological meditation written by a ferociously smart and well-read academic who is also a gifted and experienced youth minister, and who is a white man hailing from the late twentieth and early twenty-first century United States. Ross mostly draws upon those contexts to good effect. Still, they are not everyone’s contexts. If one forgets that, if one treats those contexts as universal, one will miss the pastoral and theological wisdom that Ross’s arguments display.

All of which brings me to his arguments. Ross begins with “spectacle,” a term he takes from the French Marxist Guy Debord. Debord’s 1967 work, Society of the Spectacle, denounced a society in which life has become nothing but constant titillation by images. In such a society, images of a pseudo-world entertain us and make us want to buy things, and they also make us want to be entertained by more images that will make us want to buy more things.

For Debord, the problem isn’t just that such a society is vapid. It’s that the spectacle has become an inescapably successful means of social control. Here is a famous example: Women in the 1920s longed for freedom from sexist strictures. One of those strictures was the expectation that cigarettes were a privilege reserved for men only. But it wasn’t injustice that bothered George Washington Hill, the president of the American Tobacco Company. It was the lost market share. Reversing the taboo against women smoking would be, he said, “like opening a gold mine in our front yard.” So Hill hired Edward Bernays, the founder of modern advertising, to appeal to female customers. Bernays did so by hiring some women to light up during the Easter Sunday Parade as part of a phony protest in which their cigarettes were hailed as “torches of freedom.” This worked out beautifully for the tobacco companies, who started seeing a steady rise in female customers. Whether it did anything to make life better for women is anyone’s guess.

Ross notes that, although many contemporary theorists draw on Debord’s work, none have named spectacle as something modern consumer society shares with the Roman Empire. If Ross is correct—if ancient Rome and modern consumer society have spectacle in common—then this will require some reworking of Debord. For Debord, spectacle has especially to do with modern modes of production, market theories of value, and the commodification of experience. Put differently, what horrifies Debord is that it is now possible to do the following:

(1) Stir a desire for something that approximates an authentic experience—Freedom! Authenticity! Dissent!—but isn’t.

(2) Produce a talisman of that experience—“freedom torches,” artisanal small-batch hipster beer, a Che Guevara T-shirt—and sell it, letting its value be dictated by market forces.

(3) Stand idly by as freedom, authenticity, and dissent become commodities like wheat or corn. The consumer probably doesn’t care whose corn went into her canola oil as long as she can acquire the canola oil she desires. Likewise, she probably doesn’t care who made her Che Guevara T-shirt as long as it lets her stomp around town like some kind of devil-may-care dissident.

(4) Over time, find oneself in a society of thoroughly conquered subjects who prefer these pseudo-experiences to real ones, much to the delight of the capitalists who own the T-shirt factory, beer distributorship, and tobacco company.

The economy of the Roman Empire, though, lacks many of these distinctive features. Ancient Romans did not, could not, sell pseudo-experience in the same way that Debord diagnosed. To do so would require a kind of modern selfhood that had yet to be invented. So Ross will need to do a bit of reading Debord against Debord. And so he does, in the process making two moves which are profoundly interesting and creative, and which also make me methodologically nervous.

One move is to tease out connections between late capitalist pseudo-experience—that thing I am buying when I fork over money for a Che Guevara t-shirt—and demons. Much like pseudo-experiences, demons are “composite beings,” first activating our longing for goodness but ultimately just stirring our disordered passions. If the words “disordered passions” made you look around to see if Augustine has just joined the party, your instincts are correct. Augustine’s understanding of demons is a real boon to Ross’s project. But with all due respect to Augustine, the serious excitement starts when Ross plays solos atop the steady pulse of Augustine’s rhythm section. Augustine sets the tempo by explaining the relationship between idols and demons: idols, he says, are just human artifacts, but their presence leaves people vulnerable to the very real activity of demons who possess immortal bodies and debased souls. Therein lies the power and appeal of the demonic. While promising us true fulfillment, demons arouse our most compulsive, insatiable, and self-serving desires.

Over this Augustinian beat, Ross performs his own solo. In the society of the spectacle, the consuming subject actually operates within a demonic metaphysical horizon—the very same metaphysical horizon that animated the Roman Empire’s public displays of violence-as-entertainment. This is an important distinction. Ross is not simply saying that we can understand Augustine better if we put him in dialogue with Debord. Rather, according to Ross, Augustine actually gives a better description than Debord. For whereas Debord can only describe spectacle it in its modern guise, Augustine correctly sees it as an age-old demonic work.

In light of that, what hope do we have? That question brings us to the second theological move I wish to draw attention to: Ross’s notion that, in the Eucharist, Christ offers himself as a consumable object. Ah, but there is a twist! The crucified and risen Christ is the true recipient of religious longing—the very longing so deftly exploited within demonic metaphysics. Thus, Christ’s presence in the Eucharist can, at last, close the slobbery maw of insatiable demonic desire. Here is how Ross puts it: “The recipient of the Eucharist ceases to be a Consumer Subject because the ‘True Spectacle’ has redeemed his desires, and through this redemption he has become part of a new political subjectivity” (71).

And here is where I get a little fretful. To his credit, Ross goes to a lot of trouble to give thick historical descriptions of Roman meals and Roman games. So I am unsure of why the Last Supper accounts are not treated in the same way. For example, when Ross argues that the Eucharist can be understood in contrast to elaborate Roman feasts, it isn’t exactly clear where and when it can be so understood. “Whereas Roman emperors and politicians spread lavish banquets, and offered up the bodies of gladiators and crucified noxii for the crowds,” Ross writes, “Jesus laid before his disciples a simple meal and offered up his own body.” That is an appealing juxtaposition, but I’m worried about the methodological shift that takes place halfway through the sentence. If we’re going to inquire into the history of Roman banquets, ought we not do the same with accounts of Christian Eucharistic practice? If so, then it must be asked: How do we know that the meal was simple? Which scriptural account are we going with? The Synoptics? John? Paul? Or is this about early Christian meal practices that seem to have predated those accounts? How have we gotten so quickly to the assertion, “Jesus laid before his disciples a simple meal and offered up his own body”?

Bringing the inquiry up to the present day: How does Ross contend with the fact that many, many recipients of the Eucharist seem not to have received any new political subjectivity, and do not cease to be Consumer Subjects? Do such people receive unworthily, in the Augustinian sense—committing sin and inviting physical affliction by partaking? Or are such apparent counterexamples not important? How do we get to the point where we can claim that this is what the Eucharist does?

I suppose the question I am asking the author is this. How does one know when one has done the theological and historical legwork necessary to be able to assert something? I can think of one answer, but I’m not sure how this answer would fit with the rest of Ross’s project. I mentioned earlier that I read this as a ministry book written within a particular context. By that, I mean that Gifts Glittering and Poisoned made most sense to me once I understood that it was written by someone deeply concerned for the spiritual well-being of first-world teenagers and young adults, probably white, and possessing some disposable income.

Understand: that is meant as a compliment. Please do not read it as a criticism. Gifted ministers know who they’re ministering to. They know when they are inspiring and when they are resorting to cheap persuasion. Ross is a gifted minister as well as a gifted theologian. When Ross references musical acts like Coldplay and U2—but not, say, Eddie Kenzo, Public Enemy, Gil Scott-Heron or Angel Haze—I can hear him working to inspire those beloved children of God to whom our world has bestowed a particular set of cultural markers. I could imagine that similar pastoral concerns inform some of Ross’s other choices. It may be the case that, within Ross’s context, these juxtapositions just work well. Rather like how a particular juxtaposition might work well in the lyrics to a song: it coheres with the rest of the musical work, helps to convey what the composer wants to convey, and works with style and genre conventions that the intended audience can recognize.

To be sure, I think that is a fine way to do theology, provided one owns up to it—naming the context in question, acknowledging that it might work differently for other people with different lives from mine, reminding oneself that one’s own perspective is not everyone’s perspective. (Oh, that reminds me! Dearest Chanon, I think the world of you, and I know you to be a trustworthy man who supports and values women as colleagues, theologians, and friends. So, respectfully, why did you repeatedly use “he” and “him” to mean “the generic human subject”? Was it a style guide issue? I’m going to tell myself it was a style guide issue.) I am not sure whether that sort of epistemic modesty would work here, though, given Ross’s ambitious metaphysical claims. So I am left needing a bit of help understanding how Gifts Glittering and Poisoned all hangs together. More than that, though, I am grateful for its creativity, freshness, ingenuity, pastoral sensitivity, boldness, and hospitality.

  • Chanon Ross

    Chanon Ross

    Reply

    Play Along!

    Sarah Morice Brubaker is as funny as she is a brilliant, and when I grow up, I hope to be half the writer she is. I also hope she counts me in her “joke,” because I too “have maxed out on anti-Enlightenment theological swagger.”

    On the other hand, I continue to be suspicious of Enlightenment hubris and the abiding sense that we moderns have overcome the past through technological advances and liberal democracy. As Faulkner once said, the past is never dead—it’s not even past.

    Brubaker names several methodological concerns that culminate in an important and challenging question: “How does one know when one has done the theological and historical legwork necessary to be able to assert something?” Her question is not merely about whether I did my historical homework. (I spent years combing through mountains of primary and secondary literature on Rome’s spectacle entertainments in order to understand the social and political context of Jesus’ crucifixion and early Christian martyrdom.) Rather, I understand Brubaker’s concern to be about how to relate the ancient past and the modern present. For example, she notes how the book “teases out” connections between “late capitalist pseudo-experience” and Augustine’s description of the demonic. This connection (and other connections in the book) emerged from close readings of Augustine’s theology and contemporary political theory. As Brubaker eloquently puts it, much of Gifts Glittering and Poisoned is a “solo” played atop an Augustinian chorus. Since her lovely metaphor is a helpful description of the ways Gifts Glittering and Poisoned relates past and present, I’d like to extend it to address her question about methodology.

    I play several instruments by ear and have on many occasions performed improvisational solos. In music improvisation is a risky business. It is a mix of structure and freedom. The supporting orchestra must strictly adhere to the written music. Every note is prescribed and predetermined. Through such disciplined precision the orchestra produces a beautiful backdrop that makes an improvisational solo possible. In other words, because the other musicians attend diligently to the music as written, the soloist is free to play from her soul. Through this interplay of discipline and freedom, new resonances emerge that no one has heard before. Something like this is what I have tried to do in Gifts Glittering and Poisoned: the central argument of the book is an improvisational solo made possible by years of disciplined historical research and close reading of contemporary political theory and theology. My hope is that this solo produces resonances between the ancient past and modern present that haven’t been heard before. The connection between Augustine’s description demonic and modern consumerism’s idealization of bodies is once such resonance.

    A musician can only judge the quality of her improvisational solo in hindsight and with the help of the audience and fellow musicians. I have had the privilege of presenting on Gifts Glittering and Poisoned on many occasions, and I’m happy to report that for most audiences the book’s “improvisational solo” works. The connections between ancient and modern ring true, however they do so in ways that have compelled people to ask insightful questions. For many, there’s something curiously incomplete about some of the connections. In other words, they like where the solo is going, but they haven’t yet heard the resolving chord. They subsequently engage the material for themselves and hear resonances and connections that had never occurred to me. This delights me! As far as I’m concerned, the best thing that could happen is for the book to spark a conversation that would lead to insights far beyond those I could make myself. I only insist on the interplay of discipline and freedom: that whatever resonances we hear between ancient and modern emerge close readings through research. In this way, we see the past anew and enable early Christian voices to echo across the centuries speaking wisdom into our modern situation.

    My response to Brubaker then is this: if you find the “improvisational solo” in Gifts Glittering and Poisoned compelling yet incomplete, then play along! I would love to hear what you (and others) hear, to see where the melody line goes. Of course, this is a more risky methodology. Anachronism should be avoided, but if our fear of it is so strong that it prevents new resonances between ancient and modern, then we’ve played things safe to our own detriment. A little methodological adventure may be just what we need. (Dearest Sarah, you’ve always been up for a little adventure, haven’t you?)

    In summary, I’m not suggesting that we ignore significant differences between the ancient world and our own. Of course these differences exist, but how many of us smart-phone-carrying-moderns need to be convinced of them? Rather, our modern temptation is to overestimate such differences, to assume an unbridgeable divide.

    Brubaker’s concerns about history and methodology has an equally important corollary that I want to address briefly with the hope we can continue the conversation below. She suggests that the book makes “the most sense,” as a “ministry book written for a particular ministry context.” She urges me to “own up to it” by “naming the context in question, acknowledging that it might work differently for other people.”

    I’m grateful for this challenge and especially for her observation that Gifts Glittering and Poisoned is a ministry-minded book. The one thing I hope Gifts Glittering and Poisoned demonstrates is an unwavering commitment to the wisdom afforded to us in the Christian tradition, but of course, that tradition has (many) shortcomings. I am (as Brubaker notes) a white male whom that tradition has privileged in certain ways, and I affirm Brubaker’s suggestion “that it might work differently for other people with different lives from mine, reminding oneself that one’s own perspective is not everyone’s perspective.” I’m more than happy to acknowledge that I have only one perspective on the problem, but I hasten to add that the problem is not only mine, because the spectacle is a totalizing power of consumer capitalism.

    For example, my book begins with a story about the power of advertising-spectacle in São Paulo, Brazil, and the remarkable social transformation that happened when that city unilaterally banned all forms of visual marketing. In the process of tearing down a series of huge billboards, the São Paulo city government discovered a favela-community of poor, Bolivian immigrants that they didn’t know existed. In other words, the marketing-spectacle had hidden the poor, marginalized, and oppressed from view. So society of the spectacle is not merely a problem for those with the means to consume. It is everyone’s problem.

    • Sarah Morice Brubaker

      Reply

      Shall We Hootenanny?

      I note with pleasure that we’ve covered a number of musical genres already in this brief exchange, which I take as an auspicious sign of its success. As I read my original review (which was written several months ago) and then pored over Chanon Ross’ generous and patient response, I reflected upon how the same piece of music can grab you—or not—depending on what else is going on when you hear it. Reading my original review of Gifts Glittering and Poisoned, I was reminded of two very different things: the book’s quality, and the peculiar way in which its musical beat fell on my ear the first time I read it. I think the two are related, but it may take me a bit of time to explain the connection, so I hope you’ll bear with me.

      When I first read Ross’ book—or, to stick with the musical metaphor, when I first heard the melody line Ross is introducing us to in Gifts Glittering and Poisoned—I was, meanwhile, contending with an entirely different earworm that had gotten stuck in my head. I’d just read a different theological book in which . . . well, let’s just say that the author was not altogether attentive to how his own fairly privileged perspective was not The Human Perspective As Such. As a consequence, that author (who, to reiterate, was not Chanon Ross) was a bit sloppy with his claims. This rankled me. For good reason, I think. But meanwhile, I was writing about said book, and I was trying to make my assessment of said book into something that people would want to read.

      Writing, in an age of the hot takes, poses some significant spiritual dangers. In my experience, it encourages an author to identify themselves with their “voice.” Now, certainly, in some quarters “voice” still means “creative, honest, and non-obvious way of looking at the world and expressing the experiences gleaned therefrom.” Very often, though, “voice” functions as a shorthand for “brand” or “platform.” And if you’re the sort of person who wants to “build a platform” through writing—which you had better do if you’re hoping to earn any part of your living doing it—then you have a vested interest in believing the claim that your “voice” is whatever gets people reading your stuff.

      I mention this for two reasons: First, I think it’s an insight wholly in keeping with the argument of Gifts Glittering and Poisoned, so if nothing else, it shows how Ross’ theological arguments have been working on me and affecting me in the intervening months. Second, I hope it places my initial engagement with Ross’ work in some wider context that time and distance have helped me see. I had a bug up my . . . uh, nose? . . . about a particular privileged perspective passing itself off as The Human Perspective As Such. But meanwhile I was also tending a brand in which my “voice” (read: brand) was that of a denouncer of mansplainers.

      Clearly that affected my engagement with Ross’ book; just as Ross’ own perspective and social location affected his engagement with the historical and scriptural material; and just as any writer’s life will affect who they listen to and what they notice. Looking back, I see that engaged with Gifts Glittering and Poisoned still humming the tune from the other book, and still wishing I were not humming that tune. I didn’t realize it at the time, and so I was surprised to read Ross’ defense of the quality of this research. Surprised, because I had never doubted it; it had never occurred to me to doubt that Ross would have played fast and loose with his research. I was a little worried about the work that the Eucharist was doing in the book’s argument, because I didn’t quite understand how that claim was being supported, and what role history and historiography played. But I never doubted for a second that Ross had done the requisite historical and historiographical legwork. Reading my review over again, though, I could see that my critical glibness—quite possibly warranted in the review of That Other Book—had migrated over. I regret that. I also realize, with considerable discomfort at the realization, that glib musing is a disconcertingly easy voice to speak in.

      Anyway, that’s a long way of saying that I would write a rather different review now. That’s not a retraction—I respect the Syndicate editors too much for that!—but more of a disquieted observation on how one never reads the same book twice. But, yes, I would like very to take Ross up on his invitation to add my own musical phrases to the argument in his book! That strikes me as an extraordinarily more helpful way of engaging each other’s work than my prior mode of methodological concern raiser. And I further wonder if we may do so under the specific—and very theologically highbrow—category of “hootenanny.”

      Again, this framework is informed by my own experience, because yesterday we had a hootenanny at my house! We have finally lived in one place long enough, and formed enough relationships with musicians, that we are able to invite them over for a jam session if we promised to stuff them full of barbecue in return. Yesterday’s hootenanny was heavenly: fiddle, cello, banjo, upright bass, several guitars, harmonica, and vocals. Children and dogs running around underfoot. People calling song titles on the fly, and shouting out “Harmonica solo!” “OK, now fiddle!” “Cello, take it!” Friendships forming. It was amazing. Chanon, I wish you could have been there on dulcimer!

      Anyway, if we were to have a hootenanny centered on this book, the song I would contribute to the song list is “In the Pines.” It’s sometimes called “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” and sometimes called “Black Girl,” and it’s been recorded by Lead Belly, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Pete Seeger, Bill Monroe, and Nirvana, among others. I think that song might be a handy proxy for talking about the Eucharist in a way that doesn’t lapse into the eucharist-is-my-arbor-day idiom. Because it’s certainly true that there’s a song called “In the Pines”—you can request it at a hootenanny and people will have some idea of what you’re talking about—and it’s also true that there really is no single song called “In the Pines.” Some versions are about a train accident. Some are about a girl being interrogated about where she slept last night. By the time it was first printed by Cecil Sharp in 1917, it had already been passed down orally through several generations. We don’t have access to anything like “the original.” Some versions are explicitly racial—specifying the addressee as a “black girl”—and some have her fleeing from law enforcement rather than running off with a lover. And of course, the versions all reflect the milieus out of which they arose, and the concerns that the musicians and folk music collectors cared about. (Or didn’t care about.)

      So let’s say we’re at this hootenanny, and Chanon Ross has just invited us to sing “In the Pines.” I both know and do not know which song this is. I know that we’re not going to sing “Twelve-Inch Three Speed Oscillating Fan” or “Come and Go With Me To That Land” or “Mama Tried,” so I can flip right past the pages with those chords and lyrics. But I’m not sure if we’re singing Lead Belly’s version, Loretta’s version, or Nirvana’s version; and I’m not sure if we’re including the verse with the train or if we’re focusing on the girl, and what her story is.

      Except, of course, that instead of “In the Pines,” we’re talking about the eucharist as God’s answer to demonic capitalist spectacle. Which: yes! Amen! I’m so ready to sing along with gusto; I think I just want to know which version we’re singing, and why.

      And certainly, the way that I frame the question says as much about me as it does about the substance of my question. So I look forward to hearing Ross’ solos and riffs and ad libs. Take it, Chanon!

       

William Desmond

Response

On Festival, Ecstasy, and Masquerade

WHEN I WAS INVITED first to contribute to the discussion of this book I was initially attracted to the intriguing title, and also to the explanatory subtitle. A general description of the book secured my commitment to contribute. When a copy of the book eventually arrived, one of the first things that I saw on opening it was the fuller quotation from which the title was taken. To my surprise it originated in something I had said myself! I had forgotten that I had written something to that effect, but perhaps not absolutely forgotten, since something without a name echoed in my mind on reading the title of the book.

I will return to the quotation, but first I want to thank Chanon Ross for the fine book he has written. It is historically informative about the games in the Roman empire. It is philosophically and theologically astute about the Christian response to them, all the way to the witnessing of martyrdom. It is also philosophically and theologically in the zone with respect to the infinite restlessness of human desire, both its homing on God and its waywardness with respect to the counterfeit doubles of God. The book is of pressing contemporary significance, in so far as the exploitation of these counterfeit doubles is at work in our society of the spectacle. Chanon Ross offers much food for thought in drawing out the analogies of the ancient pagan spectacles and our own postmodern forms of the spectacle. Central is the taking possession of human desire by a variety of counterfeit doubles of God, or idols. The book is attuned to the deep down equivocity in all of this, given that the counterfeit double can look like the original it counterfeits, and hence the difficulty of discernment, both theoretical and practical, in telling the difference between the two. Part of the spell of the idolatrous spectacle is that it mimics the liturgical communication of the divine. But, of course, we do not know, or do not want to know, that we are possessed, or under a spell. Christ breaks the spell of the counterfeit(ing) powers.

One question here and I will turn then to the quotation. Chanon Ross speaks of the daimonic, and this is predominantly interpreted in terms of what I have just called the counterfeit(ing) powers. Of course, the daimon is an in-between being, a metaxu—a notion central to my own efforts to think about things. My question: what about the eu-daimon? I am thinking of eudaimonia in Greek ethics, which one could read, not just as simple “happiness,” or fulfillment in the immanent sense of self-actualization, but as naming the need for a good daimon (eu-daimon) to bring the human being to true fulfillment. In the older traditions the good daimon might have found form in the idea of the guardian angel, for instance, but what interests me is the need to refer to a companioning power to do justice to the human being’s search for fulfillment. The companioning power takes us outside the frame of any completely immanent account of desire’s fulfillment, outside also of any ethics of autonomous self-determination as claiming the ultimate word. The need of the companioning power names us as in the space between the human and the divine. The counterfeit(ing) powers deform that between space, and become daimonic in the ultimately destructive sense attacked by Augustine, and re-echoed here by Chanon Ross. Christ is the companion power: literally, if we think of the companion as the one who breaks bread with us (cum-panis), and sacramentally, if the bread broken and shared is divine. In place of panem et circenses we are offered panis angelicus (in the words of Aquinas’s sacred hymn).

I turn to the quotation now since it has to do with the monstrous manifestation of these counterfeit(ing) powers.

“What happens in the apparently empty ether of thought may come down to earth, and a masked metaphysics come to walk the streets—or stalk. For monsters too might float in the Empyrean, coming to earth with gifts glittering and poisoned.”1

It is a slightly dislocating experience to hear one’s own words come back to one through the surprising engagement of an other, not yet known to one. Come back to one in a context which throws light on crucially important issues, drawing on intelligent recourse to the history of Christianity and Western civilization, that sees with finesse the analogies between then and now, and that draws out the philosophical and theological significance of the spectacle. My own thoughts are made strange to me, and yet they come home to me with the enrichment of the other, and I am myself drawn into a between of communication that is not of oneself or of others but that has some promise of the universal about it—a kind of catholic between, so to say.

The point is not simply to assert a personal engagement with this book, but to draw attention to what seems to me to be major stresses in the book itself. Summarizing very crudely in a riff on the quotation: first, the difference between earth and heaven, the space between these two and how they might be mediated and separated. Second, how what goes up must also come down; hence, how a metaphysics that seems to speak of higher things will return to haunt things earthly, and moreover may be masked, and sometimes not fully honest with us. There may be an equivocity in the secret metaphysics that might perhaps harbor blessings, but might also conceal curses. Third, if the masked metaphysics walks the streets, the idea that we live in a post-metaphysical time seems questionable. Our supposedly being “post-metaphysical” masks the secret metaphysics that does not know itself, and pretends to be uncontaminated by metaphysical presuppositions. This is not so and it cannot be so. In all that we do, in all our efforts to make things intelligible, and in all our striving to come to some sense of the significance of life, we carry with us certain basic orientations toward being as given. We are all walking metaphysicians. Even the walking of the post-metaphysician secretly incarnate metaphysical presuppositions. What is important is to reflect metaphysically on what is at play in our situation. This book especially has significance for the relation between immanence and transcendence, for the attempt in our time to redefine transcendence in fully immanent terms, for the consequences of that redefinition with respect to the mutilation or counterfeiting of true transcendence. Fourth, a metaphysical, indeed theological orientation can also stalk the streets, where “stalk” here carries connotations of intent, intent sometimes presented as releasing us into a supposedly higher space of freedom, intent sometimes desirous to eviscerate what in previous epochs might have been thought of as the true conditions of transcendence. This last point particularly bears on the hindrance Christianity is sometimes felt to present in restraining a more unfettered release of our imminent autonomy. Stalk: also in the sense in which a possible assault may lurk in the wandering metaphysics, metaphysics that claims to be no metaphysics, but that secretly does not accept the given conditions of being, or is in revolt against them. Stalk: in the sense that a project to overcome the given conditions of being may lurk in the wandering metaphysics that is no metaphysics. Fifth: the monstrous—the monstrous may be outside of us, but more intimately, it is within us as the potentiality to mutilate the sacred, and thereby to transvalue it into something hitherto called evil. The monstrous thus is a promiscuous mingling of good and evil in which the good is recessed in the evil that disseminates itself as the good now kept from view. The intimacy of the monstrous, the idiocy of the monstrous, as I call it, is very important here. This intimacy is very important also in relation to the society of the spectacle whose manufactured ecstasies mimic and counterfeit true self-transcending. Sixth: the Empyrean: the heavens of pure light and fire, a sign of heaven beyond the heavens, a name for a transcendence that surpasses even the outermost limit of the finite cosmos as we know it. The monstrous floats there. Floats? Because even in the mutilation of the monstrous soul, there is still at work the energy of its self-transcending. The monstrous soul is still marked by a kind of eros for the absolute. In due course, going up will come down, and the eros turned back from heaven will turn its attentions to the things of the earth, turn its attentions in a manner which reflect the bent of its eros. Hence, seventh, the saturated sacral diversity of what it offers us, namely, gifts glittering and poisoned—a counterfeit Sabbath. Of course, in the word “gift” there is etymologically the suggestion also of a possible poison. The equivocity is also evident in the doubleness that attracts us, namely, the glitter, the glamour, and the counterfeiting of the genuine gift. The true gift is the gift of the good. Now the inner core of what gives itself is being voided, perhaps worse than voided, insofar as the voiding infects our eros. The voiding empties out our true desire, and in the resulting emptiness makes it infernally hospitable to the negation of true transcendence.

This is brought out very well by the book’s account of the many dimensions of the spectacle in Roman Imperial times. For the book is attuned to the secret, and not so secret, expressions of will to power, both in the individual sense in the figure of the Emperor, and in the social sense in the shaping of the masses and their easily swayed desires. In compact form, it lays out not only the format of the games in Rome but also the social imaginary of the time and the incitement to the surface of the darker sources of will to power, always opportunistic, almost always predatory. I liked the way it brought together ancient and contemporary, for instance, Augustine’s considered reflections and the recent discussion of someone like Guy Debord. In our own time we seem to abjure the exhilaration in violence of the ancient spectacles and find the bloodthirsty gruesomeness of the games repulsive. Chanon Ross steers us toward granting virtual versions of the bloodthirsty gruesomeness; we indulge in the virtual pleasures of these versions, in the games of death played on computers, or in the blood cinematically spurting in our face from mangled bodies in not a few Hollywood blockbusters, I almost said, bloodbusters. Ironically, our overt revulsion to gruesomeness is itself derived from the inheritance of the Judeo-Christian tradition and its admonition of peace, and this is even true when in more secular mood that inheritance is put aside or attacked. We are living off an inheritance that we are not renewing.

Where is the violence in our own time? All around us, it often seems. It is an interesting question to ask how the advanced cybernetic West is complicit in the exports of war and the instruments of war on a global scale. On the screens of our computers or tablets or iPhones or cinemas we see virtual simulations of the violence that seems not to touch us in the flesh, while out of range of the virtual image, flesh is being hacked, burst, exploded into tiny pieces by high precision instruments of death coming from high-flying drones. Monsters floating in the Empyrean of technological Imperium, showering death on those below, many of whom, even granting the equivocal nature of political or military engagements, are innocent. We watch death from a distance. We inflict death from a distance. Meanwhile, within the cocooned world of consumer capitalism, we distract ourselves with desire endlessly manufactured by the religion of shopping whose business is the manufacturing of endless desire.

Endless desire: desire without end, infinite desire, but for nothing. One sees here the point Chanon Ross makes, and it is very congruent with his own sympathies for the Augustinian understanding of human desire. There is an intimate infinitude to our desire, and if we desire what is not infinite, infinite desire becomes what Sartre calls a “useless passion,” or what Hobbes said of the human condition, namely, “a desire for power after power that ceaseth only in death.” If the infinity at work in human desire does not find its home in God, it will wander in a desert of distraction. Paradoxically that desert of distraction is now a place where desire can gorge itself on an endless array of finite satisfactions and pleasures. There is a systematic counterfeiting going on in the investiture of these finite satisfactions with the glitter of the false infinite. I liked Chanon Ross’s use of Aquinas’s discussion of man’s final end. Compared to “hot” Augustine, Aquinas is perhaps more sober and systematic in making his way through all of the finite goods that present themselves to human desire. They are good, but are not the final good. Astonishingly: anything at all we desire, we desire because we desire God. This is a transformation of the Aristotle’s analysis of our relation to the ultimate good as desired simply for itself alone. Aquinas sees that this alone can be God, this alone can answer the openness and infinite restlessness of human desire. Given the “in-your-face” provocation of the games, Augustine’s Confessions and its existentially engaged exploration of infinite desire reminds us deeply that the end sought can only be an intimate good. It is this sacred intimacy that the spectacle takes over, exploits and abuses.

How does this relate to our current situation? There are many fine things here. Chanon Ross is very right to pay special attention to festivals, especially musical festivals. The festival, of course, socially incarnates a liturgy of affirmation. To be festive as to affirm the goods of the world, the goods of human existence, and in often unnamed ways the ultimate good of God as the source from which all finite goods derive. Josef Pieper has a marvelous little book on this deep down source of all festivity in religious affirmation—a kind of celebrating amen to the goodness of all of given being, a raising of a gesture of gratitude to the divine source of all that good.2 Music festivals are communal happenings of ecstasy. Alas, like the Israelites impatient because Moses had not returned soon enough, we set up an idol and we dance and drink and sing. Chanon Ross is very resourceful in making use of Aquinas’s analysis of religious ecstasy (Aquinas is not “cold”). But there are counterfeit ecstasies, there are chemically induced ecstasies, there are socially produced ecstasies in which the contagion of the group which has lost hold of itself communicates to the dancing crowd. We lose ourselves, and we are happy to lose ourselves. There is then nothing to answer to the infinity of restless desire. Strangely, this is the “end” of desire masquerading as a kind of completion. We inevitably wake with a hangover, and if we are wise, with a more insistent dissatisfaction with the poverty of our fulfillment. The poison of the “party” turns the soul to ashes and we feel it in the flesh itself. This end of gifts glittering and poisoned awaits us.

 


  1. This came from a book chapter “Neither Servility nor Sovereignty: Between Metaphysics and Politics,” in Theology and the Political: The New Debate, ed. Creston Davis, John Milbank, and Slovoj Žižek (Duke University Press, 2005), 153–82.

  2. In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, trans. Richard Winston and Clara Winston (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999). The musical title is very appropriate.

  • Chanon Ross

    Chanon Ross

    Reply

    The Metaphysics of the Soil

    What a privilege to read William Desmond’s response. I’m elated that he found something of his own work reflected in mine yet different in a way that was new and helpful. Desmond’s parsing of the epigraph conveys the coherence of the book’s argument and the way the pieces fit together in precisely the way I see it.

    Like Desmond, I am dissatisfied “with the words ‘post-metaphysical’ being bandied about with all the assurances of the self-evident” (Desmond, “Neither Sovereignty nor Servility,” 156). On the one hand, metaphysics is a complex issue that necessarily involves a nuanced and informed discourse. On the other hand, metaphysics isn’t just for those who breathe the rarified air of academia, as if the only people who can make sense of metaphysics are academics engaging in philosophical and theological discourse. It seems to me that Western consumer culture is dripping with the metaphysical: shopping malls, movies, virtual reality, social media, the music and film industries, and a thousand points between—and as Desmond notes, “the between” is the point. The human need for transcendence drives and sustains these cultural industries, which are invested in the creation of complex symbolic orders.

    Consider, for example, the remarkable proliferation of superhero narratives in recent years. The Romans also had an affinity for superhero-demigods, and Augustine understood the appeal of such beings: their superhuman bodies are eternal; impervious to illness and decay; beautiful and impossibly strong. Yet Augustine observed that these beings are, like us, corrupted by the passions of the soul: avarice, lust, violence, and so forth. Augustine described these beings as “demons,” and if Augustine were here today, perhaps he would say to us what he said to the Romans: that our society’s worship of such demonic beings (and the metaphysical ideal they represent) is a misdirected longing for God. The metaphysics of the demonic-superhero ideal takes many forms and pervades every corner of consumer culture including retail advertising, music videos, vampire stories, video games, virtual reality, and so forth.

    My point in Gifts Glittering and Poisoned is that what Augustine describes in City of God as the demonic is, in many ways, the operational metaphysics of Western consumerism. We moderns may not worship this metaphysical ideal in a traditional way (with temples and formal religious rituals), but this metaphysics nevertheless nourishes and sustains the liturgical mythos of capitalism’s sacrificial system. In the society of the spectacle, the buying and selling of goods is anything but immanent, transactional exchange, for as Debord rightly observed, spectacle is “full of metaphysical subtleties.” A society trying to free itself from spectacle is like a religious person trying to stop believing in God. Spectacle is a power that builds on religions sensibilities and a longing for God, and there is a genealogy that can be traced from orthodox Christendom through the society of the spectacle. The trajectory of this genealogy does not lead to something new but merely reincarnates the ancient Roman love of spectacle and pagan (demonic) metaphysics. This love takes a new form, but the ancient substance is still there, and this reincarnation of Rome should not surprise us because America was, in many ways, built to be the new Roman Republic.

    Ironically, our secular culture has a deep affinity for the metaphysical, and as theologians we should understand and describe how marketers and those in the retail and entertainment industries operate as the priests of this metaphysics. Once we understand the mundane and ordinary character of this metaphysics, we can deconstruct the myth of secularism and educate as to the true theological nature of our so-called secular culture. This strategy reclaims the central place of theology in social discourse and culture analysis by identifying how our current culture really is theological and metaphysical (but not necessarily Christian). In other words we need to show that metaphysics is a word that helps everyday people make sense of their lived experience in modern consumer culture. The question is not “whether metaphysics” but “which metaphysics” and how that metaphysics mediates the social imaginary.

    The connection between metaphysics and everyday lived experience brings me to a recent and developing interest, which I describe as the metaphysics of soil. There is literally nothing more material and “earthly” than soil, and soil is the last thing most of us would associate with the word “metaphysics.” Yet I think many people, including many young adults, are increasingly drawn to the soil through practices of sustainable agriculture—and for reasons that surpass mere material reality.

    I have the privilege of working regularly with the director of Princeton Theological Seminary’s new Farminary Project, which interrelates theological education and sustainable agriculture. At the Farminary, students learn to integrate sustainable agriculture with scripture, theology, worship, and spiritual disciplines. In the immanence of the soil, they discover the transcendence of the Creator and come to know themselves as creatures of what Desmond calls “the between.” In other words, they learn, in a new way, what it means to be “earth-creatures” (like Adam and Eve) made in the image of God. Once we begin to understand this metaphysical constitution, we relate to the material world differently. We see how all of creation reflects the Creator and we learn about that Creator through the gifts of creation. One of the key courses offered through the Farminary focuses on helping students know the deep interdependence of life and death. For we are earth creatures for whom death is part of life rather than the antithesis of life. Death and rebirth (resurrection) is the work of the soil and those who tend it, and it is the nature of the salvation we have in Jesus Christ.

    The metaphysics of the soil, which we find in the gospel and in the biblical narrative, is a compelling alternative to the demonic metaphysics of modern consumer culture and ancient Roman spectacle. Whereas demonic metaphysics shapes the social imaginary in the image of the demigod (bodies that are eternal, strong, beautiful, and impervious to disease), the metaphysics of the soil invites us to discover ourselves as earth-creatures made in the image of God. In our fragility and materiality, we reflect the glory of God; death is in our nature, but, because of Christ, so is our resurrection.

    • William Desmond

      William Desmond

      Reply

      An Agriculture that Is Christological

      I am happy once again that Chanon Ross and I are singing from the same hymn sheet. Metaphysics as a reflective philosophical discipline has been in the doldrums for some time, especially in the Continental tradition of philosophy. Still, metaphysics, or quasi-metaphysics, continues under other names; and even the post-metaphysicians are carriers of secret metaphysical presuppositions and orientations, even when in denial about this.

      The matter is not merely academic, and this is a point made in Chanon’s remarks. For so-called ordinary persons are as much carriers or embodiments of hidden metaphysical presuppositions as are the academic scholars, thinkers and scientists. Ordinary life and everyday orientations are full of metaphysical presuppositions and orientations, though these are not the words that immediately come to mind of ordinary people. So too are the diverse institutions that diversely mediate our everyday life. The point is important for the intellectuals, though, since the latter often give the people in ordinary life stones instead of bread, when they come to the intellectuals with perplexities of deeply existential import. Economic and cultural institutions can also give counterfeit food that does not nourish. What I say about metaphysics applies also to theology. It is a sobering thought that sometimes the intellectuals are initially fed with healthy bread from ordinary life, but in giving back stones, they hinder the baking of new nourishing bread. And the bread of life is not alone the bread that nourishes our bodily being.

      That said, I do not want us to escape into disembodied spirit, and Chanon’s engagement with the Farminary Project strikes me as perfectly in tune with the matter at issue. It is also sobering to think that the “ecological crisis” may well be the opportune occasion of a theological and existential metanoia in which our lack of ontological respect for nature as given may yet turn around into a more mindful and even reverent relation to creation considered as good for itself. Rethinking creation as good, as given to be as good, rethinking the given “to be” as good, these have been intimately central in my own work over many years.

      All this asks a metanoia towards the given earth as creation, in which agriculture itself becomes something closer to a sacred service. After all, agriculture is a cultivation, and a word with familial ties to cult and culture. The word “cult” is often thought of in constricted terms, but, of course, the cultus brings us to the liturgy of communication between the divine and the human. We must see agriculture differently than agri-business. There is divine service in true cult, and in true culture, and in an agriculture true to the gifts of the God-given earth.

      The human family through millennia always had some sense of this, though with the imposing powers of modern technological this intimacy with creation has been weakened. We live in cities and always see our own, not always beautiful, face reflected back to us. We are undernourished, malnourished for more close communication with nature as other. The stars still shine in the skies above us. And if we are at all able to see them, given that the light pollution of our great cities makes that impossible, we find ourselves restored to wonder. So too with the seasons in their round, in the tides of time in their flux and reflux. None of this has to bring us to a pantheism devoid of the hyperbolic transcendence of God. The signs of the agapeic excess of divine giving are there too in immanence, and not least in the human: the humus made human by the breath of God, imaging the Word that God breathes in the divine human that recreates and restores the goodness of creation. Jesus himself communicated in very elemental and yet divinely powerful images from nature in his parables about the Kingdom of God: the sowing of seeds, the work of the vine, the astonishing growth of the mustard seed. It is not beyond the theological pale to think of an agriculture that is Christological; though, to be sure, the managers of agri-business will deride all this as the dream of a ridiculous man.

Peter Leithart

Response

Becoming a Spectacle

IT WAS A DAMP drizzly November morning in Birmingham when I caught an early flight to sunny Chicago. The liftoff was bumpy, but in a few minutes we rose above the clouds and a voluptuous cloudscape spread out before us under a bright blue sky, the edges of distant clouds incarnadined by the morning sun. I admit I got a little teary, even more so when I considered how privileged we are to live in an age when human beings can see this spectacle. Millions have lived and died on this planet without ever having the option of looking down on the clouds. We moderns: We are the sky gods.

What I witnessed was a natural wonder, but I was a witness only because of highly advanced technology. One does get claustrophobic on airplanes, but they can feel less like iron cages than like a tubular set of windows onto transcendence itself.

One of the great virtues of Chanon Ross’s Gifts Glittering and Poisoned is his clear-sightedness about modern experiences such as this. It’s a hard-won clarity, because on all sides, secular and theological choristers (mea culpa) sing ours a secular age. John Milbank makes a great stride by historicizing the secular (“Once there was no secular”), and by insisting that the secular is a constructed space, not a natural sublevel of reality, always there awaiting discovery. Ross, though, recognizes that we need to turn transgression of the secular into an analytical strategy. (For what it’s worth, I think Milbank does this too.) Secularization theories assume the possibility of the secular, but Ross is having none of it. Human beings are created in the image of God, and cannot wholly suppress their desire transcendence. In short: Reports of the death of metaphysics are greatly exaggerated.

Instead of making a philosophical argument for the inescapability of transcendence, Ross examines concrete ancient and modern case studies. What philosophy Ross does cover isn’t always covered very well. His brief treatment of Kant (71–72) moves in gigantic leaps and bounds. He repeats standard, questionable claims about Scotus, but badly misrepresents Nicholas of Cusa who, he says, built on Scotan univocity by shifting attention from transcendence to an “immanent plane where human beings realized themselves as self-originating and self-sustaining” (96). He relies on Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri at this point, who are far less reliable on the history of philosophy than they are on contemporary politics (and they aren’t wholly reliable on the latter either).

The philosophical work in the book also suffers from what appears to be Ross’s commitment to an idealist assumption that ideas are the driving force of history. That explains, I think, the awkward ways he uses “metaphysics” and “ontology,” terms that typically refer to philosophical systems rather than lived human experience. It’s more accurate to say that our practices, ideas, and habits manifest implicit and most inchoate, unsystematic metaphysical assumptions and beliefs. But it’s a rare bird who engages the world with something that can be dignified with the word “metaphysics.”

I’m not sure that Ross is an idealist, though, since through much of the book his analysis focuses concretely on ancient and modern rites of transcendence. “Spectacle” is central to this analysis—the spectacular displays of blood and violence in Roman coliseums and crucifixions, the spectacles of modern images on film and in video games, the omnisensorial spectacle of a rock concert. Without ignoring the differences between ancient Romans and modern Americans, Ross stresses the continuity. We moderns live off a diet of spectacle as if it would satisfy our hunger for transcendence. It doesn’t, but only whets our appetites for more. Marketers awaken desire, and have no interest in gratifying it it (82); we gulp down the Sprite commercial the way Alypius gulped down the games. Dazzled by the spectacle that promises but cannot deliver transcendence, we become Consumer Subjects, eagerly lusting for what William Desmond calls the “gifts glittering and poisoned” offered by monsters that “float in the Empyrean” (79). Ross knows that whatever is going on in the advertising industry, it’s not “secularization.”

That reference to “monsters” isn’t accidental. In place of a secularization thesis, Ross, following Augustine, offers a demonization thesis. Moderns still experience and aim for transcendence, but our desires are misdirected to what Ross (confusingly) calls a “demonic metaphysics,” what Augustine called, with more clarity, “fellowship with demons.” We subject ourselves to the power of demons by turning spectacles into idols to which we devote our hearts. Here I register another objection, perhaps a question. Ross’s roundabout ways of referring to demons make me suspicious. Perhaps it’s an unwitting accommodation to the jargon of academic theology, but it left me wondering whether Ross believes demons actually exist. Augustine certainly did, which is why he writes of fellowship with demons rather than demonic metaphysics. What, for Ross, is the metaphysical status of demons? Are the “demons” he talks about social forces? If so, then has he really escaped the secularization model? If they are conscious beings, why name them with distancing, impersonal terms and phrases? I don’t fault him for not writing a book on demonology, but the book could be clearer about the referent of “demon.”

Ross’s subtitle includes “spectacle” and “metaphysics”; also “empire.” Whether ancient or modern, demonic spectacle forges political order. Roman games reinforced Roman virtus and intimidated the provinces with displays of Roman grandeur and power. Gifts from the largesse of the emperor, games reinforced his status as the empire’s Benefactor in Chief, and the games had a quasi-sacramental effect of binding spectators into a crowd, imbued with fear of and/or zeal for Romanitas. Spectacle takes the spectator out of himself, ecstatically, to find himself in another, each to find himself in the other of empire. Modern spectacle incorporates us into the life of the market, or into the great myth of America. Ross agrees with James K. A. Smith’s observation that the political is a “repertoire of rites” rather than rights.

One of Ross’s more sobering insights is that the modern church has accommodated to the society of the spectacle: “Many evangelical churches and megachurches . . . have developed models of church life and worship that appeal to worshipers as Consumer Subjects. These churches have sought to evangelize by making church look and feel like entertainment venues; they have replaced traditional pews, stained glass, and steeples with theater seating and screens in order to look and feel more like theaters or sports arenas. They have abandoned the traditional liturgy in favor of worship services that appeal to the sensibilities of the Consumer Subject” (100–101). It’s possible, of course, to identify counter-trends, but what Ross laments is real, and lamentable. As he argues, the result may be numerical growth, but it comes at the cost of trivialization. Once church is incorporated into consumer society, it becomes another consumer item, to be desired, used, and discarded in favor of the new-new more desirable option. It’s hardly a wonder that the church cannot slow, much less reverse, the breakneck speed of our cultural degeneration. Too often the church helps to accelerate decadence rather than opposing it.

There’s a tragic missed opportunity here, because as Ross brilliantly explains, the gospel and the church’s worship offer a direct counter to the Consumer Subject and the spectacle society. The evangelical answer is, importantly, not a direct refutation. Jesus doesn’t renounce spectacle; He doesn’t overcome Roman spectacle with a “Stop that, now!” He overcomes demonic spectacle by becoming a spectacle. Borrowing from Sam Wells’s study of the improvisational character of Christian ethics, Ross says that Jesus “overaccepts” the spectacle forced upon him. As a spectacle, he becomes the subject of the consuming gaze, but he is the spectacle that actually does what other spectacles only promise: he satisfies all desire. He is no idol, no distracting demon, but God in flesh. The macabre spectacle of the cross is opening to genuine transcendence, the way to the Father.

To the Consumer Subject, Jesus offers himself for consumption, not only to the eyes of the spectator but to the hands and mouth of the worshiper. In place of the unsatisfying consumption of the society of spectacle, Jesus offers himself as the bread of God that satisfies eternally. To the false ecstasy of the rock concert or the football game, the Eucharist offers a true ecstasy, in which the consumer melts before and into what he consumes. At this table, the eater is translated into the food he eats.

If the church would but preach the gospel and do the Eucharist, keeping close to the classic practices of Word and Sacrament, she would have all she needs to resist the empire of spectacle and to form an alternative society free of demonic metaphysics. Or, in Ross’s view, nearly all. Several times, he advocates a recovery of the renunciations and exorcisms of the ancient baptismal liturgy (104–5). It’s a sensible suggestion; if we are in fact keeping company with demons, we must relearn how to identify and renounce them. I am less enthusiastic about Ross’s suggestion that there needs to be a long period of catechesis and renunciation before the Eucharist. No doubt there’s a place for exorcism at the baptismal gate, but exorcism is lifelong, and the Eucharist is not the end of this exorcism but one of its instruments. We refuse demonic metaphysics every time we sit with Jesus in his peaceable kingdom.

Ross also insists, rightly, that renunciation of demons and participation in the consumption of Jesus the spectacle is a life of witness, of martyrdom. Martyrs follow Jesus in His overacceptance of spectacle; they follow Jesus in giving their flesh and blood for the encouragement of their brothers and the life of the world.

Gifts Glittering and Poisoned deals with many of the buzz-themes of contemporary theology—gifts, theological metaphysics, ritual and liturgy, Eucharist, martyrdom, empire. His contribution is to display the interconnections of these themes, and to explain the ways they intersect with the lives of individuals in contemporary society. Though written at a very high level of sophistication, this is ultimately a book that should be in the hands of pastors, youth minsters, and lay Christians, as we strive to be faithful in an age of glittered but poisoned spectacle.

  • Chanon Ross

    Chanon Ross

    Reply

    On Possession

    Peter Leithart may understand my book better than I do, and that is a tremendous gift. He offers many significant insights for which I’m grateful. He’s also not willing to let me off the hook when it comes to the metaphysical status of demons, so he asks, “What, for Ross, is the metaphysical status of demons? Are the ‘demons’ he talks about social forces? If so, then has he really escaped the secularization model? If they are conscious beings, why name them with distancing, impersonal terms and phrases?”

    A straightforward question deserves a straightforward answer, so here it is: yes, I think demons actually exist. My perspective is greatly influenced by Augustine for whom the metaphysical status of demons and socio-political analysis were integrally related. I do not think we have to choose between metaphysics and social analysis, because Augustine’s example provides a way around this unhelpful binary, and I’d like to say a bit more about that here.

    As Liethart notes, I do not find theories of secularization compelling in part because human societies are composed of imago dei, who by their nature exhibit a deep longing for God. This deep longing is not merely cognitive, but proceeds from the core of our being. It is expressed in our everyday desires, and we can see how consumer culture twists and misdirects our desire for God toward other transcendences. It is not surprising, then, that advertisers and brand managers have discovered the commonalities between advertising and religion. In the PBS Frontline documentary “The Persuaders,” award-winning producer Douglass Rushkoff documents how marketers and influential brand managers have learned to build “cult brands” (Apple, Starbucks, Nike, etc.) by studying religious and cult groups. One of the influential brand managers he interviewed observed that “people, whether they are joining a religious cult or brand, do so for exactly the same reasons. They need to belong and they want to make meaning. They need to know what the world is all about.” This led the brand manager to a new understanding of his job, and to see himself as a kind of pastor or priest: “Now a brand manager has an entirely different kid of responsibility,” he said. “In fact, they have more responsibility. Their job now is to create and maintain a whole meaning system for people through which they identity and understanding of the world.”

    After speaking with such brand managers, Douglass Rushkoff realized that today advertisers “fill the empty spaces . . . where churches once did the job” (cf. 139–41).

    In many ways, the social roles once filled by pastors and priests have been transferred to advertisers. In their new “priestly role,” advertisers use iconography, ritual, and aesthetic experiences, to build powerful-symbolic orders that connect worshiper-consumers to transcendence. The shopping mall, for example, functions as a temple designed to mediate the human soul through the cultivation of desire. In this liturgical system, sacrificial offering takes the form of purchasing products, and the products become the symbols (or systems of symbols) that allow consumers to connect with the transcendence on offer. For example, last fall, clothing retailer Ann Taylor launched an ad campaign called “Be the Icon.” Through this ad campaign the company educated prospective customers on the meaning and power of iconography and then used this “theological education” to enhance customers’ interactions with its advertising. Wearing Ann Taylor clothing was presented as the way for customers to participate analogically in the transcendence depicted in glossy, iconographic images: buy the clothes, be the icon.

    Some theologians, like William Cavanaugh, have also described the theological and religious nature of consumerism. In Being Consumed, which is a very insightful book, Cavanaugh describes how the market is “a way of seeing the world, of reading its images and signs.” However, he stops short of naming the transcendence consumer culture worships, suggesting that these signs “refer only to other signifiers not to the signified.” In other words, for Cavanaugh, the idolatrous power of consumer culture is “flat” because its liturgical order (e.g., it’s systems of signs and signifiers) never connects the worshiper with transcendence (God).

    Cavanaugh’s assessment of Consumer Culture is helpful, but Augustine has a somewhat different perspective than Cavanaugh that I ultimately find more helpful. American consumer culture is a complex and multivalent religious system that features many gods and images of transcendence much like Roman paganism. For Augustine, Roman paganism was not merely “flat” but effectively connected worshipers with a malicious transcendence by cultivating and misdirecting their desires. Paganism accomplished this mediation through powerful spectacle entertainments, mass consumption (cf. 39–41), powerful images, experiences of ecstasy (cf. 121–30), and technological worship (cf. 53). While Augustine regarded pagan gods as unreal, he observed that paganism had real social affects. Its rituals, prayers, temples, images and other material components opened the people to a malevolent transcendence he described as the “fellowship of the demons.” This mediation inflicted both individuals and every aspect of society.

    Augustine describes demons as beings of insatiable desire. They revel in the sinful passions of the soul (greed, avarice, lust, etc.), and they have perfect, immortal bodies that are eternally strong and never sick. In City of God, Augustine tells how the Romans had come to admire and aspire to this demonic way of being. They too wanted to experience insatiable desire, to spend lavishly, to be concerned only with material prosperity, to have perfect and beautiful bodies, and to be surrounded by luxury and plenty.

    Today, this lifestyle-ideal, which Augustine associated with the influence of demons, permeates every corner of modern consumer culture: from the giant screens in Times Square to the casinos of Las Vegas; and from the shopping malls of suburbia, to the virtual spaces of social media. Although Augustine’s condemnation of Rome’s social values in City of God was penned centuries ago, it reads like it was written about us today:

    They are unconcerned about the utter corruption of their country. “So long as it lasts,” they say, “so long as it enjoys material prosperity. . . . What concerns us is that we should get richer all the time, to have enough for extravagant spending every day. . . . Anyone who disapproves of this kind of happiness should rank as a public enemy: anyone who attempts to change it or get rid of it should be hustled out of hearing by the freedom-loving majority. (cf. 66)

    Augustine helps us see that modern consumer culture is not merely an ineffective or “flat” idolatry. Rather many of the producers of the society of the spectacle, who include marketers and other agents of popular culture and entertainment, have unwittingly tapped into a malicious transcendence that Augustine describes as the demonic. This is to say that our so-called secular consumer culture really is theological and religious in nature.

    Leithart rightly observes that Augustine believed in demons as real and conscious beings, but in City of God his metaphysical analysis of the demonic constitution is inseparable from his assessment of Rome’s social ills. For Augustine, these modes of analysis are mutual rather than antithetical. I admit that following Augustine’s example makes thinking about demons a bit less sexy and subsequently less fun to write about. Most moderns associate the demonic with images of individual demonic possession rather than mundane and everyday experiences of social life.

    But perhaps demons possess us most powerfully when they shape our desires in their image.

Response

Here Below

MY FEELING AFTER FINISHING Chanon Ross’s book is one of sublime frustration. Sublime, in that Ross has led me to deeper contemplation of the God who is the true reality that frees me from the hypnotic glare of spectacle. Frustration, in that I am not sure what Ross wants me to make of my everyday life in this earthly city before the heavenly city fully arrives.

Ross artfully exposes the spectacle of our violent, acquisitive, lust-drunk popular culture. His comparison of Augustine’s critique of the Roman spectacle of the arena with the “glittering and poisoned” (in a lovely phrase he borrows from William Desmond) gifts of modernity rings true. The Roman arena, as Augustine observed, is the apotheosis of how humanity’s natural desire for transcendence has become twisted by sin. We are made for God and rightly desire to be united with God, the transcendent source of goodness, justice, truth, love and beauty, but our desire is turned toward other dark experiences that ironically enslave our passions and finally deprive us of the real transcendence we seek. In St. Paul’s words, we have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25 NIV).

Ross is particularly adept at exposing how closely something we modern people assume is normal—a capitalist market economy buttressed by pervasive, intrusive, constant consumer advertising—has replaced the openly demonic spectacle of the Roman arena with a perhaps more subtle and insidious kind of idolatry. We fail to consider the warning of John the Seer, that this idolatry too will be judged, that “the merchants of the earth” one day will mourn for Babylon “since no one buys their cargo anymore, cargo of gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple cloth, silk, scarlet cloth, all kinds of scented wood, all kinds of articles of ivory, all kinds of articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls” (Rev 18:11–13 ESV). Ross reminds us that the spectacle of modern market transacts in human souls.

There, then, is the sublimity in Ross’s text: an artful and jarring reminder that our present addiction to violence and acquisition is an old trick, the oldest trick, of the demons, and that our only rest, the real end of our desires, is in the God who made us for himself.

And now the frustration: how, then, shall we live? While in some respects Ross’s book is a meditation on the temptations of modernity, in other respects it is a statement on the relation of “Christ and culture” that entails implications for theological ethics. I remain unsure about what Ross thinks about “Christ and culture.” In Richard Niebuhr’s familiar topology, is Ross advocating a stance of “Christ against culture?” With Ross’s emphasis on the baptismal rite of exorcism, this sometimes seems to be the case. Or, would Ross suggest that Niebuhr’s topology is overly formalistic and that a genuine Christian ontology subsumes every category: Christ against, of, above, in paradox with, and transforming culture? With Ross’s emphasis on the Eucharist and his reference to Radical Orthodoxy, this sometimes seems to be the case.

The ambiguity here leads to a problem of theological ethics. Ross uses the example of a U2 concert as a form of modern spectacle that—it seems, from what I understand of his text—inevitably leads us away from God. Does that mean Christians should not attend U2 concerts, just as Augustine said Christians in his day should not attend the Roman spectacles? When Christians participate in ecstatic experiences at U2 concerts, are they surrendering themselves to the demonic? What about Bono’s profession of faith as a Christian? What about Christians—and there are many, including this writer—who find that U2’s music and spirituality often draw them closer to the God revealed in Christ?

Ross never directly addresses such questions, but when he seems to approach them he reverts to the sanctum of the Eucharist. Along with Ross and others influenced by Radical Orthodoxy, post-liberalism, and various other forms of postmodern theologies, I am deeply sympathetic to the claim that the Eucharist is the central “location” in this earthly city at which the heavenly city begins to break in and proleptically incarnate God’s peaceable kingdom. But I don’t think this means that most ordinary Christians are called to become monastics who spend all their time in Eucharistic adoration. A small few may be given that calling, but most of us are called to take the Eucharistic blessing out into the world. I am fairly certain Ross would agree, but I’m not sure how Ross thinks that means I should relate to something like a U2 concert—or to how Bono, as a Christian musician, should enact his art.

This question about Bono as a musician surfaces another lacuna in Ross’s text. Does Ross think God is in any way present in culture, even when culture is corrupted? This is of course another old problem, that of the relation between faith and reason. Christian theology has utilized various categories for discussing it: Logos Christology, prevenient grace, common grace, natural law, the analogia entis, or, even more controversially in some of the Radical Orthodoxy thinkers Ross mentions, metaxu and Sophiology. Accounts of the relation between Christ and culture, and between faith and reason, and between the “sacred” and “secular,” are always embedded within each other.

On this axis, consistent with my sympathy for Ross’s Eucharistic emphasis, I likewise resonate with his channeling of Milbank’s critique of “the secular.” Milbank is right about this, I think: “the secular” is a myth and we are always already engaged in a “theological” context. But this doesn’t mean we eschew the so-called “secular” artistic and material culture. Exactly the contrary: when we recognize that everything is theological, we can begin to make often subtle and difficult distinctions between what is already becoming rightly oriented and what is twisted in culture. To employ the Reformed terminology those of us who attended evangelical liberal arts colleges learned in our youth, we can see that “all truth is God’s truth.” To revert to the language of Augustine and Radical Orthodoxy, our consumption of the Eucharist opens our eyes to the fundamental principle of being that really animates all that is true, good, and beautiful in creation, and also helps us understand that evil is not a thing in itself but a parasitical deprivation of being. So is a U2 concert irredeemably depraved, or might it also manifest the presence of Divine grace?

There is one passage in Ross’s text that perhaps suggests one kind of answer. Ross notes that “the way in which Romans acted during spectacle entertainments was often different from the way in which they acted in the everyday course of life” (122). There was at least some recognition even among Romans that the spectacles were a kind of release from the rigid demands of ordinary Roman propriety. The games enacted a kind of role reversal in which society’s elite were required to serve the populace. There is a sense here of the familiar contrast between “high” and “low” forms of culture, such as Plato’s argument against the use of base, immoral characters in Homer’s epic poetry, which might be imitated by the young. Is there an echo of Plato’s chiding request: “We will beg Homer and the other poets not to be angry if we cancel those and all similar passages, not that they are not poetic and pleasing to most hearers, but because the more poetic they are the less are they suited to the ears of boys and men who are destined to be free and to be more afraid of slavery than of death”? (Republic 3.387b).

So, I wonder if Ross would apply his critique of the U2 concert to “higher” forms of culture, like the performance of a Bach concerto. Fans of Bach can become no less ecstatically transfixed at a performance than fans of Bono. Are they too surrendering to the demonic? Or, is the sublime beauty of Bach’s complex counterpoint, which Bach himself (like Bono) always ascribed to God’s glory, opening the listener to an authentic experience of the contemplation of God? Will there be music in heaven? Will it be the music of Bach’s baroque high culture, the chiming tones of The Edge’s guitar, the familiar lilt of a traditional folk tune, the sound of a mother singing her baby to sleep?

My reference here to different forms of “high” and “low” (or to use the Roman/Latin term, profanus) culture, raises another concern. Though I am sympathetic to the claim that the Eucharist is the central locus of response to worldly spectacle, I wonder about the ecclesiology that must accompany any such claim. Ross refers often to how “the early Christians” (his terminology) eschewed the violence of the arena for the peace of the Eucharist through which Christ absorbs all violence. But we must then ask about two other basic sets of relationships: between church and state, and between clergy and laity. Concerning both of these sets of relationships we must consider disturbing trends from the early centuries of the church through the Reformation that threaten Ross’s thesis.

The question of the relation between church and state is of course fraught because of Constantinianism and Christendom. Some of the sources Ross cites—notably Milbank and Hauerwas—disagree on the basic question of whether Christendom was on balance a good thing. At the very least, it is fair to ask whether the translation of the spectacle of the arena into the spectacle of the Eucharistic celebration that accompanied the fall of Rome and the rise of Christendom really did much to mitigate imperialistic state violence. The sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, among countless other ignominies, should give us pause here. The Eucharistic community has never really been fully at peace within itself, and often has literally been at war.

The issue of the relation between clergy and laity is no less perilous for Ross’s thesis. Many of the tensions that led to the Reformation had to do with the sense that the Eucharistic celebration had become so rarified and esoteric that the common person had become, at best, a spectator and not a participant. This reflected an ironic reversal of Augustine’s participatory ontology of the spectacle. For the common person, the church’s Eucharistic celebration did not replace the false spectacle of the arena with the authentic gift of Christ’s presence. The common person was deprived of the cathartic (if demonic) experience of the games, but also was excluded from the cathartic and authentic mediation of the Table by barriers of law, language, class, gender, and education. These conditions, at least as much as the late medieval scholastic intellectual trends towards univocity, nominalism, and voluntarism, informed the Reformation’s, and modernity’s, radical turn to the individual. A Eucharistic celebration that loses touch with common people is no longer a nourishing meal, but rather presents its own sort of perverse simulacrum of transcendence. If the Eucharist is the only answer to violent spectacle, a communion ecclesiology “from below,” which encompasses not only the visible assembly of the church but all of humanity, is the only answer to the crowd’s bloodthirsty roar as the emperor signals his “thumbs down.”

This ecclesiological problem leads to a final reflection on Ross’s critique of the market. In interventions such as Ross’s that identify “the market” as a chief font of idolatry, it is too often impossible to distinguish a good exchange of gifts from a debased deal with the devil. If every kind of market exchange is equally demonic, then there is no hope of a redeemed city. Human beings are created for productive work and exchange. Together we cultivate the garden, but we cannot each cultivate the entire garden. Perhaps I will grow grapes, and you will grow corn, and we will exchange some of our produce so that we each have a portion of good fruit and vegetables to eat. This kind of fair market exchange reflects our constitution as social creatures. Our consumption of the products of our labor is a joyful response to God’s provision of food for our nourishment and enjoyment.

Markets are not inherently soul-consuming, but rather are part of the “very good” of the human creature’s capacity for sociality—for soul-building. We can see in markets some analogy to the ecstatic exchange of gifts within the perichoretic relations of the Trinitarian persons. But markets lacking the internal bond of cultural exchange—the bond of love—become hateful spaces of violence. As always, the problem is not the affirmative presence of some created capacity, but the lack of love in the exercise of that capacity—a deprivation, not a thing in itself.

So, again, I want to ask Ross, how then should we live? Can I exchange my grapes and corn in the city market square, or must I refrain from all worldly commerce? Christians in antiquity redeemed the Roman spectacles not by participating as spectators, but as sacrificial victims. In the moving conclusion to Perpetua’s diary we see Perpetua herself steady the hand of her executioner, who in the face of her brave faith had lost his composure. The vast majority of Christians are not called to a monastic or clerical life and necessarily find themselves in the arena of the marketplace. (Even those of us blessed enough to enjoy academic careers soon realize, at least if we sit on the budget or admissions committees, that we are not really cloistered in our ivory towers.) What does it mean for us to refuse the hypnotic bloodlust of the crowd and to find ourselves instead on the bloodstained floor above the hypogeum, not brandishing a sword but offering ourselves? How do we as Christians who have eaten at the Eucharistic table rise up after the meal and participate faithfully in God’s redemptive mission within the arenas of popular culture and the market?

  • Chanon Ross

    Chanon Ross

    Reply

    The Society of the Spectacle

    I am grateful for David Opderbeck’s “sublime frustration” with Gifts Glittering and Poisoned, which is the result of my not offering adequate guidance for faithful Christian practice in the book. He says, “I am not sure what Ross wants me to make of my everyday life in this earthly city before the heavenly city fully arrives.” His questions raise a number of practical concerns that I’d love to discuss with him here.

    For example, Opderbeck hones in on my description of Bono as complicit in the spectacle and understandably asks, “Should Christians not attend U2 concerts, just as Augustine said Christians in his day should not attend the Roman spectacles? When Christians participate in ecstatic experiences at U2 concerts, are they surrendering themselves to the demonic? What about Bono’s profession of faith as a Christian? What about Christians—and there are many, including this writer—who find that U2’s music and spirituality often draw them closer to the God revealed in Christ?”

    So when it comes to corrupt culture and spectacle entertainment, how, when, and where should Christians draw an ethical line?

    Early Christian leaders (as well as Jewish ones) rightly implored their people to refrain from Rome’s violent spectacle entertainments, which (as Augustine notes in Confessions) were as addictive as they were perverse. Over the centuries, Christians have, in various times and places, enacted rules to distance themselves from cultural corruption. Such prohibitions and guidelines are often scriptural and play an important role in Christian ethics, but they are (thankfully) not the whole story of Christian ethics. Navigating complex culture requires careful discernment, and we see such subtle perceptions in the ways early Christians thought about Roman culture. Early Christian leaders implored their people against corrupt culture, but they also discerned a cry for redemption in Rome’s spectacle entertainments. In the first and second centuries, Rome sacrificed thousands of humans and animals as in the Coliseum (and other venues), and these entertainments often included ritual executions like crucifixion. In these violent sacrifices, Christians perceived a deep longing for God, which Jesus fulfilled when he became a spectacle and offered his body and blood: “This is my body broken for you, my blood shed for you.” In other words, salvation came to humanity not because Jesus avoided the evil spectacle of the cross, but because he engaged and utterly transformed it. The cross ceased to be a spectacle, death, and the rule of Rome, but became a sign of life, resurrection, and the rule of God.

    For early Christians, the cross was a complete victory over the symbolic order of Rome’s culture of violent spectacle. This is why early Christians, like the Apostle Paul, saw spectacle as an opportunity for witness. Paul voices this profoundly in 1 Corinthians 4:9 where he compares the work of an apostle to being a spectacle in the Roman arena: “For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings” (1 Cor 4:9 NIV). The Apostle Paul did not die in the Coliseum as spectacle entertainment, but other Christians did. When the Romans martyred Ignatius of Antioch in the Coliseum, he likened his body to bread (cf. Eucharist) that the spectators might glimpse the truth of Christ his Lord.

    So where does this leave us with Bono and U2? If early Christians could hear a deep longing for God in the roar of the crowd at the Coliseum, then certainly Bono could perceive the same in the roaring fans at a U2 concert. Moreover, the concert is a powerful medium and symbolic order that can cultivate an intellective ecstasy that raises the audience through life-giving representations of truth, goodness, and beauty. On the other hand, the ecstasy of a rock concert could (and often does) debase its (often youthful) audience, leaving them awash in the lustful passions of the soul. So the goal for Christians is not avoiding spectacle, but knowing the ways in which any particular spectacle mediates the spectators and turns them either toward good or toward evil. This is a complex matter because we are not always masters of the spectacle, and this is true even of skilled artists like Bono. In Gifts Glittering and Poisoned, I describe how Rome’s emperors were controlled by the very spectacle entertainments they created. The roar of the crowd is a powerful thing, and it is entirely possible for an artist to succumb. This is what happened in the instance I describe in the book, where Bono, caught in the ecstasy of the concert, pulled a young woman onto the stage, laid down with her, coddled her closely while singing, and proceeded to kiss her on the mouth. I am a huge fan of Bono, but in this instance, I think the spectacle got the better of him.

    As a musician and rock star, Bono operates as an agent of the spectacle, but it is important to recognize that this agency is deceiving and never absolute. The same can be said of modern politicians who, like their ancient Roman counterparts, use the power of spectacle to amplify their voice and obtain the power of political office. This is an election year, and the full power of the political spectacle is on display. It’s interesting and I think important to analyze the way politicians as different as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump employ spectacle but also succumb to it. In most cases, the spectacle seems to have more power over politicians than they have over it. Today, the debasing effect of political spectacle is so powerful and integral to the political process that no politician runs for office unaffected. This doesn’t mean that Christians can’t employ the power of political spectacle for good. For example, peaceful political protests in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. can be powerful spectacles that witness to truth, result in a more just society, and counter the corruption of the existing political machine.

    Obderbeck rightly observes that most of us “are [not] called to become monastics who spend all their time in Eucharistic adoration.” Instead, we live in the corrupt culture of this earthly city, and that is tricky business. One of my favorite literary scenes is in the Brothers Karamazov when the elder Zosima sends young Alyosha from the safe harbor of the monastery into the corrupt world to be tossed about by ethical situations that are hardly easy and never black and white. That’s the situation for all who live in the society of the spectacle. To discern a way forward we need a faithful community of friends who hold us accountable and who help us see ways the spectacle may have gotten the better of us in the course of everyday life. The next time Obderbeck goes to a U2 concert, I hope he invites me to go with him.

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