Reading Jason Bivins’s Religion of Fear made me think, not so much of Hell Houses or planes flying aborted fetus pictures over Notre Dame, but of Arcade Fire’s Intervention:
I can taste the fear
Gonna lift me up and take me out of here
And it made me think of Don Delillo’s White Noise, which played so expertly and wittily on social paranoia as a broader product of secular horror – as seen in the “airborne toxic event” that drives the plot of the novel.
Perhaps I’m thinking of that today while hanging in hippy-trippy Crestone, Colorado, right at the base of the Sangre de Christos, surrounded by a plethora of religious communities; and sitting at the Shambala Café, overhearing the musings of some of the locals, who are (unwittingly) serving as a counterpoint but also counterpart to the subjects of Bivins’s work, and who seem cumulatively like a DeLillo character come to life.
It should be called the Department of Offense, not the Department of Defense, man. Dude,
Obama’s just doing their bidding, man. They'll get someone else to run the Ponzi now.
Paranoia's seductions strike deep in the heartland, and even a fur piece down the road from the heartland. Arcade Fire captures their voice as well:
Don't wanna give 'em my name and address,
Don't wanna see what happens next,
Don't wanna live in my father's house no more. . . . .
Don't wanna fight in a holy war,
Don't want the salesmen knocking at my door,
I don't wanna live in America no more.
'Cause the tide is high,
and it's rising still,
And I don't wanna see it at my windowsill.
Indeed in reading Jason’s work I was wondering if DeLillo was going to come up. And he does in one of the quotation epigraphs for the last chapter, where a character in DeLillo’s Mao II says: “So we turn to the news, which provides an unremitting mood of catastrophe. This is where wefind emotional experience not available elsewhere.”
But evangelical audiences did have that emotional experience available elsewhere, which is exactly what this book is about.
Starting with Jack Chick tracts in the 1960s, and moving on through evangelical critiques of popular music, hell houses, the entire oeuvre of the Left Behind novels, and a variety of other evangelical popular productions, Bivins traces how and why the audience for these productions could taste the fear, and why it lifted them up and took them out of here, from the 1960s to the present. Throughout, the emphasis is on the erotics of fear, and how the cultural products of evangelical fear dovetailed with the horror genre in ways that simultaneously provided titillation, fright, anger, and reassurance. This is religious studies that cultural historians need to engage.
Jason’s textured work provides one of the richest exploration of evangelical popular culture since the 1960s that I’ve ever read. He manages to avoid the demons of this genre: on the one hand, the left-wing journalism school that sees theocracy anywhere and everywhere; and on the other hand the penchant for celebrating products of popular culture on their own terms, without seriously considering any normative statements about the meanings of these cultural products.
Here is how he puts it at the end of chapter 2, setting up the series of topical chapters to come:
The frights are not propagandistic, but they are politically coded. While they may not be designed to generate political ideologies or programs directly, they are created out of sociopolitical concern and they underwrite antiliberal politics . . . none of these creations [Chick’s cartoons, anti-rock/rap censorship, Hell Houses, and Left Behind novels] takes a “mustard seed approach,” waiting patiently for faith to blossom. They are proudly direct and confrontational, seeking to alarm in God’s name . . . Through blood, shock, death, and destruction, the religion of fear ushers into being a world whose very terrors announce its redemption.
Consistently throughout, we find Bivins’s subjects (conservative evangelical audiences who consume these products) “drinking deeply of the forbidden in order to deny it,” with the “compulsions, desires, and fascinations that these representations seek to displace” inevitably returning “in vicarious experiences and representations which promise the erasure of these desires even as they deliver a surrogate thrill . . . Desire is thus, even when expressed in a litany of repudiations, a central part of the religion of fear.”
This is the case with his tracing of the history of evangelical anti-rock/rap/metal tracts: these demons are never fully driven out but, like an endlessly glitched compact disc, return to infinitely reassert their place of prominence in this discourse.” The repressed returns again and again to the same stuck place in the CD, and the audience can’t stop watching/listening, not unlike the one place in the Arcade Fire song quoted above that I just had to keep replaying while driving home from school.
But here’s my favorite quote that sums up the theme of the work. Commenting on the Left Behind novels (and I didn’t know how many of these novels there were – enough to form a genre by itself), a fifteen-year old fan is quoted as saying, “The best thing about the Left Behind books is the way the non-Christians get their guts pulled out by God.” Sometimes it takes a fifteen-year old to raise a thesis.
Fear has its erotics, and it has its politics, the subject of the final chapter:
The religion of fear’s exemplars are public creations, representations meant for the entire sinning world . . . Slowly, since the 1960s, the seeming outlandishness of its many claims have been reframed. The discourse now normalizes and naturalizes ideas that are antithetical to the kind of pluralism on which democracies thrive. Or as put in a previous paragraph: Nowhere in the religion of fear do we see suasion and reason, only ramparts manned and fingers pointed.
Where does the religion of fear go from here? (Feel free to respond to that question, Jason!). The prevailing tension between hope and fear seems especially urgent now, as gun stores sell out, the usual pundits and radio show hosts prattle on, Glen Beck sells his own unctuous evangelical paranoia – but also while the political rhetoric of hope had strong currency in the 08 political marketplace in America, and the 09 political marketplace in Tehran. I’m just asking.
In the meantime, I hope you’ll engage this book. It is not easy reading; it avoids simple philosophizing or sloganeering; and it requires (or at least required from me) frequent bouts of re-reading denser sentences that balance competing ideas and theoretical reflections delicately posed on a teeter-totter. Ultimately, despite its somewhat pessimistic conclusion, the book is a resounding affirmation of democratic pluralism against the erotic seductions of the culture of fear, as are the protagonist's unconcious realizations in "Intervention":Been working for the church
While your life falls apart
Singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart
Every spark of friendship and love
Will die without a home.