There are certain rhetorical moves that evangelicals make in their arguments to “out-pious” their interlocutors. For example, if you can find a way to say that the other person is talking about everything except Jesus while all that you’re saying is “It’s all about Jesus,” then you win the argument. The evangelical market never runs out of room for books by celebrity pastors whose thesis is “Nobody has done this before, but I’m going to share with you a gospel that is 100% just about Jesus.” Another tactic evangelicals use to win arguments is to claim that the other person is being “anthropocentric” (man-centered) while you’re being “theocentric” (God-centered). I have been tickled to see Doug Campbell turn this tactic on its head in his take-down of “decision for Christ” soteriology in The Deliverance of God. But for this rough draft of a piece, I’m particularly interested in examining what I would call the “Kantian” and “Nietzschean” threads of evangelical piety about God’s nature. These aren’t threads which I could trace historically to the thoughts of Immanuel Kant or Friedrich Nietzsche, but they definitely echo instincts that are representative of their respective thoughts.
Immanuel Kant is what I would call the father of modern objectivity (or at least his name has come to function as a symbol for modern objectivity in my mind). The idea of “Kantian” objectivity is that truth can only be apprehended accurately in the absence of emotion or subjective personal investment. Obviously there is a lot of soundness to this. If I have a vested interest in believing something to be true or false, I can be deluded by confirmation bias. And strong emotions are going to skew my ability to think clearly.
But what if I try to say that whatever is unattractive to me must be true, because of the converse claim that if I rationalize an idea since it’s attractive, then I’m probably not thinking rationally about it? Must the truth be sufficiently unattractive in order to prove that it’s not the product of projected wish-fulfillment on the part of the believer? In complementarian evangelical circles, questions of gender get involved. While women have a tendency to succumb to “emotions” and “sentimentality” when talking about difficult topics like God’s wrath, men are able to dispassionately describe “the truth” (which is measured in direct proportion to its unattractiveness).
In classical Western discourse, there have always been three supreme measures of worth: goodness, truth, and beauty. But when this sort of popularized “Kantian” objectivity becomes the hidden presupposition, beauty ceases to be a legitimate measure of value, because beauty is measured intuitively and subjectively rather than by dispassionate logical deduction. A gospel that is beautiful must be false because it’s attractive and thus can’t be trusted not to be a product of the believer’s “feelings.” Thus, the more pious evangelicals are, in this regard, the uglier a gospel they should be expected to share, so that no one can say that they’re talking about the Jesus they “want” to believe in.
Now there’s another dimension to evangelical piety that echoes the instincts of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose thought could be described as a rebellion against the banality of the liberal German Protestantism of Adolf Harnack and Friedrich Schleiermacher. Nietzsche describes Christianity as an effeminate religion of the weak with virtues like meekness, humility, gentleness, kindness, and so forth instead of the “masculine” heroic virtues of classic pagan civilization like pride, courage, and leadership. Nietzsche considered himself a champion of what he called the Dionysiac wild side of human nature, named after the Greek god Dionysus who was the god of wine and revelry. Greek mythology is filled with stories of Dionysus wreaking havoc on overly prude kings like Pentheus of Thebes. In Euripedes’ Bacchae, when Dionysus enchants the women of Thebes to join him on a hillside orgy and Pentheus sneaks up on them, Dionysus causes the women to rip Pentheus’ body apart and play soccer with his head.
There is a dimension of Dionysiac wildness to evangelical Christianity especially among those with a “cage fighter Jesus” theology. This makes pretty good sense since evangelicalism is a mostly suburban phenomenon, and suburban people are generally stuck (at least from my experience) in pretty banal, tedious lives, whether in the office, on the freeway, at the department store, or in the Little League bleachers. So why shouldn’t church be a place where you go to get a euphoric rock and roll experience and hear a message about a God who’s going to kick some !@#$%^&*? I think it’s the allure of the Dionysiac that causes evangelicals to scapegoat the “domesticated Jesus.” I’m not saying it’s entirely a straw man (though I will say it can be). I have encountered plenty of Christians who aren’t comfortable with the fact that Jesus bled real blood on the cross and who don’t like it when I use phrases like “the fear of God.” But I have also encountered a zeal for making Jesus barbaric that goes far past merely having a sense of integrity.
It’s this same kind of feeling that makes a lot of evangelicals fantasize on their facebook pages about the world ending hopefully very soon. They aren’t actually thinking about the horrific implications of their Armageddon lust. It’s more a need for something significant and earth-shattering to happen so that business as usual cannot continue since we live in what feels like the most anti-heroic time in all of history. It’s a need for the eschaton, the new era that Jesus proclaimed, which itself is entirely appropriate. It’s very hard to live in the new (though 2000 year old) kingdom that Jesus created. The powers and principalities of suburgatory are so suffocating and strong. So I can appreciate the yearning for a wild biker Jesus who crashes through the gates of our sheltered lives. Just don’t hate on the Beatitudes.