Just 'Cause You Feel It, Doesn't Mean It's There

Days of Hope, Religion of Fear:
Reflections on Jason Bivins's Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism

by Paul Harvey
Just 'Cause You Feel It, Doesn't Mean It's There -- "There There," Radiohead

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.


Anonymous said…
One of the things that I think needs to be done is to historicize this contemporary religion of fear in the larger context of Christian history. Bivins does a great job, I think, exploring current manifestations and laying out the poltical roots and consequences of the modern religion of fear, but thinking within a larger historical context, this appears to be another manifestation of a tension in Christianity that holds that God is loving but that God is also wrathful. Certain historical moments (like our own) bring to the forefront the religious utility of fear, and I think Bivins offers an important reflection on how popular culture (and not just theological treatises) becomes a vessel for religious fear at important cultural conjunctions. I think a work building on Bivins would be an asset for thinking about the manifestations that Bivins describes to see the connections and maybe disjunctures between present and past. Going with my gut I would say modern explorations of fear are much more graphic than say the Puritans or early Reformation, but there are probably important continuities as well. Another aspect that came to mind is how fruitful a comparative approach would be. Bivins alludes to this when he notes that all religions use fear. I think it would be insightful say to compare Christian fundamentalist fear with Islamic fundamentalist fear. Are there similar tropes? Why? I think that Paul is absolutely on target about how textured _Religion of Fear_ is and how important the work could be for historiography. But don't look at me--I'm trying to get my dissertation done.
Anonymous said…
Excellent review, Paul. I've read Jason's two books and they've helped me learn a lot about conservative evangelicals and the New Christian Right. With the popularity of Hell Houses, contemporary Christian music, Christian schools, etc., it does make one wonder about how strands of American conservative Protestantism have had such a conflicted approach to the dominant culture: a completely outsider status (shunning the culture) is rejected, and yet there is such a fascination with being "culturally relevant" that one finds an "evangelical" or "Christian" version of almost any popular cultural event or institution. As I recall, Heather Hendershot's "Shaking the World For Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture" (2004) does some of this analysis, especially in looking at the popularity of "Veggie Tales." But more can be done in this regard (perhaps I just don't know the literature).

Paul, I thought your keen reflections on some of the problems with cultural histories and journalistic treatments of the issues that Bivins' addresses so well are right on target. Please keep these interesting and insightful reviews coming. Just the kinds of conversations we need.

Curtis Evans
Jason Bivins said…
What a nice surprise. My sincere thanks for taking the time to read, think, and write about the book, Paul. Thanks, too, to Curtis and Todd for great comments. It was a strange journey to conceive and then labor over this book during the madhouse years. And as I write in the conclusion, my sense of this political religion’s power (and of its unsavory implications) was equaled only by my frustration over the relatively apolitical character of American religious studies. Or at least over its blandly political character: strolls down tired old paths in new shoes, or chewing the cud at a safe (but always “inoffensive”) remove (maybe Delillo would call this Bovine Studies, Paul!).

But what really drove me was not just my desire to offer a fresh approach to studies of religious conservatism, to chronicle a different kind of doom (the secular version perhaps, where conspiracy, apathy, solipsism, and intolerance spawn a virally circulating cultural resignation), or to document some important subcultural strains of American evangelicalism. What really drove me was the hope that everything I write about in the book would disappear. Not religion or conservatism (anyone who takes that from the book, well, I worry about their reading skills), but unreason, stentorian shrillness, and splenetic visions of holy gore. This isn’t to say that I expected my book would facilitate this fading (though I confess that I nurtured dreams of “crossover” sales), for that would be too much to hope for. Nor is it to say that I bought too heavily into campaign year ebullience. I simply hoped.

Of course I knew that ROF wasn’t going anywhere. It never has. It only adapts and mutates. The sense that hostile others are responsible for our ills is too potent, too fluid an explanation, and too efficient a means for evading the ambiguous responsibilities of democratic citizenship. Just consider Glenn Beck's recent "appropriation" of Thomas Paine. There is, of course, more than this going on in my story and in others like it. But the very tensional relationships, the flourishing agon, the open-endedness of deliberation on which democracies rest, these are the stakes with this incarnation of the religion of fear (which, in light of Todd’s comparative questions, might mark a difference from other instances).

Alas, we are still mired in this stuff. But at the end of the day, I have enough faith in the field, in its possibilities, in its gifts, to think the project was worth seeing through. And, despite sometimes seemingly overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I have confidence in my fellow citizens. That might sound bizarre, and I don’t mean to suggest that what’s wrong is simply the disproportionate influence of a warped few; rather, like all of us, I know that the arts of conversation and respect can be realized far more easily than we might think. To pin our hopes on governmental or administrative change is too much and too remote. But as political theorists like Romand Coles write so cogently, it’s possible to think and perceive and practice differently on a much smaller scale, to sustain those values we think are worth sustaining, and to seek out ways of realizing them with other humans.

So despite my pessimism (you should have seen the first version of the ending!), and despite the enduring power of these frights, perhaps it’s possible simply to turn away from the ROF and start cultivating (or reviving) other sensibilities. I look forward to those moments when the field stops wringing its hands at the sidelines quite so much.

Popular Posts