Paul, And The Problem Of Other Christianities

“The ideology of Pauline studies privileges Paul’s voice over others,” laments one scholar, whose work I happened upon while researching the background for Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. “What undergirds this ideology is a desire for univocity, a search for a single meaning, a universal truth that lies somewhere in the letters of Paul.”

He goes on: “It is hard to find a Pauline scholar or reader, whether ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ in outlook who does not go to hear a transcendent divine truth spoken in and through his or her interpretation of Paul.”

Since at least the reign of Justinian, much of the world has, at least in theory, looked to the writings of Saint Paul in order to hear the voice of God in them.

“The problem with this ideology, among others, is that it makes it all too easy to marginalize, categorize, and label as Other those with whom we disagree,” he suggests. “If there is a transcendent truth locatable within Paul’s writings, then diversity and difference become deviance. To fall outside the ambit of Paul’s rhetoric, however it is consructed by scholars and lay readers alike, is to place oneself outside the fold, the norm, and the conversation. By privileging univocity and uniformity and locating that uniformity in the construction – or reconstruction – of Paul’s theology or rhetoric, difference becomes a problem.”

Looking for the voice of God in the writings of Paul means looking for the meaning of existence in Paul’s ideology. In other words, trusting Paul, over against other candidates, to tell us the truth about the world. We are, then, accepting Paul’s narrative, rather than his opponents, Paul’s discourse, rather than that of the people he opposes.

Historically speaking, Christians have understood theology that is consistent with Paul’s writings to be generally within the bounds of acceptability and theology that grates against Paul’s writings to be false – even heretical.

One problem with this, as this particular author would frame it, is that by privileging Paul’s vision for Christianity over that of his opponents in Corinth, for example, we are affirming, in essence, that there is such a thing as universal, Transcendent truth that is true for all people, everywhere, at all times. Throughout history, the idea that there is such a thing as ‘non partisan’ truth, by which everyone is equally constrained regardless of whether they assent to it, has given those who are in power license to coerce those who do not share their beliefs into falling into line and accepting the truth claims held by the majority – the Inquisition, for example, or the Witch Trials, or the Mccarthyist nightmare of the mid-twentieth century. The notion that there is such a thing is universal, Transcendent truth has quite literally killed people.

“Rather than looking to Paul as the norm, the yardstick against which to measure thought and theology,” he continues, “I have tried to cast him as one among many, a move that privileges diversity. ”

In doing this, the author quoted above is not alone. It stems, in large part, from the assumption, in vogue since the days of Walter Bauer, that Christianity in its earliest forms had no ‘creed’ or structure to speak of. On this retelling of Christian history, the version of Christianity that we now practice as normative finally won out when the machinery of the state was employed towards suppressing those with whom the so-called ‘orthodox’ bishops disagreed.

Bauer’s thesis wasn’t particularly strong in the early 20th century, and there isn’t much left of it. But the sentiment remains, and serves as a springboard for theologians like the one quoted above.

In order to remedy the widespread problem of ‘Pauline privilege’ in New Testament studies, then, the author’s “work does not look for Paul’s interpretation.” Instead, he has “tried to make space for ‘some’ Corinthian ghosts to have their possibilities.”

In less jargon-heavy language, he has sought to bring Paul down off the pedestal, so to speak, and instead try to reconstruct the voices of his opponents. Paul was not, as he and others in this particular post-Bauerian tradition assert (but never demonstrate), a valiant ‘defender of the faith.’ He was, quite simply, an idiosyncratic figure with a particular understanding of what Christianity should become. His vision for Christianity was no more intrinsically valid than anyone else’s, and certainly no more intrinsically true than that of his opponents in Corinth. Thus, when he rails against his so-called ‘heretical’ opponents, he is not doing so as one endowed with Transcendent authority or vocation, nor as one who speaks for God, but simply as a power broker, vilifying his powerless opponents in order to advance his own agenda.

The author, then, has sought to ‘put Paul in his place,’ as simply one voice among others in a conversation among ‘equals – where no one voice has any ‘Transcendent’ value over the others – out of a “commitment to plurality, a desire for difference, and the hope that a form of sociality might emerge that does not worship Transcendent univocity and rigidly police and enforce its borders.”

As such, he is commited to “looking beyond, around, and outside Paul for ways of thinking, believing, acting, and doing that might have been and that might still be.”

In doing so “we make space for other theological voices to be heard, or other visions of life to make their case to us, or other ways of organizing society and forming the self to present themselves to us.”

His hope, of course, is that piecing together the voices of the ‘alternative Christianities’ whom Paul ‘othered’ might “become a kind of pedagogy, a training in looking for and affirming difference.”

He concludes: “If we grow comfortable with seeing and hearing and finding pluralites, if we learn to desire difference, if we make our readings exercises in dialogue and debate without assuming that we must arrive at a singular truth, perhaps we can learn to look in the faces of those we fear and hate – and, perhaps worst of all, simply ignore – and instead see in them the face of God.”

Well-intentioned authors who take this tack, it seems to me, are a bit like the fabled ouroboros – the serpent who eats its own tail.

In another work, another author clarifies the implications of this particular hermeneutic. In her essay, she attempts to “unmask” the “violent undertones” of Paul’s rhetoric. The epistles to the Corinthians must be read ‘against the grain’ of the texts, she says, because Paul’s approach is abusive.

He is like a battering-ram, vilifying the Corinthian Christians because their expression of the Christian faith is outside of his “norm.” We must abandon the assumption that Paul’s iteration of the faith was ever the “correct” iteration – such sentiments are simply artifacts from a bygone age, when the ‘collected power’ of certain interest groups (“Pauline orthodoxy,” of course) was wielded to violently crush all dissent.

We know, now, that there is no over-arching truth under which all convictions can be measured. There are only ‘local truths,’ normative only in those communities that have opted to embody them, together. So long, then, as there is such a thing as “normativity,” there will inevitably be an ‘oppressed party’ who does not fit the norm.

In this light, she suggests, like the previous author, that Paul was not the fearless defender of “orthodoxy” that we have long imagined him to be, but simply a charismatic and domineering figure whose vision ultimately won out in the zero-sum power struggle that played out among the pluriform and disorganized Jesus movement of the first century CE. That Paul’s ideology ultimately won out against his opponents, then, was not a ‘victory for the faith’ – it was simply ‘social injustice.’ He didn’t ‘overcome the heretics.’ He just ‘marginalized’ the groups who felt differently than him.

Shocking as such conclusions may be, they are inevitable in any hermeneutic that begins with the “lived experience” of a group and works outward from there. Because if the “lived experience” of any given group (such as Paul’s Corinthian opponents) is the measure of things, then there isn’t actually any such thing as ‘social justice.’ There is only a kind of Nietzschean dialectic whereby any given group may acquire power and become oppressors or remain powerless and become oppressed.

So by the logic of the two authors quoted above, it would also have been oppressive if Paul’s Corinthian opponents had won out against Paul. There is a hypothetical world in which Paul’s voice was marginalized and the ideology of his Corinthian opponents came to be normative in the Christian church. In that possible world, perhaps similar authors with similar dispositions would be writing books that seek to destabilize the ‘Corinthian privilege’ in modern Christianity.

But probably not. Books like Classicist Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People or (at least peripherally) N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, or nearly anything by Wayne Meeks or Rodney Stark (or, for that matter, Paul Was Not a Christian by Pamela Eisenbaum), go some ways toward illustrating the extent that Western progressivism owes it’s very existence – quite literally “lives and moves and has its being” – in moral categories bestowed upon us largely by Paul.

It is only a minor exaggeration to say that the above authors have Paul to thank for the notion that marginalization should be avoided wherever possible, and that communal norms, though important, do not de facto bear within themselves the weight of the gods. To put it another way, if it makes us uncomfortable that Paul so vociferously comes to blows with those who would impose a substantively different vision for the Christian faith upon the early churches, it is because the moral and intellectual vision that Paul and his cohorts bestowed upon us have conditioned us to value ‘diversity’ in ways that his ideological opponents did not. In all likelihood, had Paul’s vision for Christianity not won out, nobody today would be complaining about the ‘marginalization’ of others. Not because we wouldn’t have a marginalization problem, but because we would never have been taught to care.

But diversity, pluriformity, the very notion that dissidents should not be crushed underfoot – these categories, quite frankly, are meaningless unless they are universally, transcendentally true for all people, everywhere, for all time, regardless of whether anyone acknowledges their truth value. If there are only ‘local truths,’ which are only normative for those communities that ‘opt into’ them, in a sense, then there is not actually any moral obligation for powerful interest groups to forego trampling powerless interest groups. There is nothing liberative about trading uniformitarianism for a formless and void relativism.

So the ideology that undergirds the two authors quoted above is bad for justice. If, however, we attempt to begin with Paul’s strange egalitarian impulse – as seen, for example, in his handling of the tense Jewish-Gentile relations in the churches of Rome, or the class-related issues pertaining to who could-and-could-not don ‘head coverings’ in the socially stratified churches of Asia Minor – then we will, or should be, compelled to become advocates for those upon whom society has tread, not simply as reactionaries or guilt-ridden members of the dominant culture, but as redeemed people compelled by God to faithfully carry out the ‘Cultural Mandate’ by rooting out injustice where possible, even at great cost.

******

[For those who are curious: The first author mentioned is Cavan Concannon, from the book ‘When You Were Gentiles,and the second author is Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, from her essay ‘Paul and the Politics of Interpretation.’]

Advertisements

It’s Cute That We Think We Hate Postmodernism

This blog post has a thesis: Wholesale dismissal of the core insights of “Postmodernist” thinkers generally stems from never having read them – or from having read them, but poorly. 

When I said this to a friend today, he was shocked, and asked just which core insights I had in mind. I can think of at least two.

At the very least, we should not dismiss the insight, at once profound and, in hindsight, self-evident, that human communities tend to gravitate toward marginalization. This is difficult to argue with, and, if you are a student of the New Testament, for example, or Church history in general, it will not be difficult to think of (rather uncontroversial) examples of this. 

Not least, I would imagine, Paul’s lifelong struggle to conform the disparate church communities over whom he had influence to the demands of the Gospel – namely, for those predominantly Jewish churches with whom he corresponded to embrace fully the Gentile converts in their midst. 

You don’t have to be a wholesale Foucauldian to recognize the human propensity to marginalize, as did those who (quite understandably) struggled to envision God’s covenant community as fully inclusive of Gentiles – who were uncircumcised, ate pork, and had fewer  culturally-ingrained sexual taboos, among other things. 

It was a two-way street, of course: Those predominantly Gentile churches, many of which Paul had planted or was now shepherding from afar, often struggled to be fully inclusive of the Jewish converts in their midst. The circumstances here are harder to sympathize with.

Quite frankly, Romans didn’t just love their Jewish neighbors. Most of what you’ve read about how the empire was a “bastion of multiculturalism” is misleading at best. The cities, especially, were a powder keg, and the so-called “multiculturalism” of the Pax Romana days consisted mostly in explosive sectarian violence and heavy-handed imperial repression. 

There was a litany of cultures, living together in relative stability. But it was not a Lockean arrangement; The stability of the empire rested largely in its being a military state. People from a multitude of backgrounds lived in close quarters without disintegrating into full-blown civil war because the State saw to it that opportunities to do so were rare.

So prejudice ran rampant, and minority groups like the Jews – especially of the Palestinian variety, who had not Hellenized at nearly the rate of there Alexandrian cousins – were the objects of near universal scorn. What “toleration” they received from the government was purely political prudence; What toleration they received from their neighbors owed chiefly to the fact that their neighbors didn’t want to be executed for “disturbing the peace.”

So when Gentiles joined these Pauline communities in ever-increasing numbers, it was inevitable that their Jewish co-religionists would not fare well initially. And they didn’t. The product of these inter-ethnic, intra-ecclesial tensions is that most of the New Testament was written.

******

There is another “core insight” that we should not dismiss. Namely, that there is a significant degree to which, in every age, culture, and community, the language we use gradually becomes like a vast “echo-chamber” that makes it difficult to think outside of certain fairly rigid, if spacious, categories. The result, of course, being that plenty of pertinent questions, whether moral questions or otherwise, never occur to us.

There is the reason, for example, that it took so very long for much of the Christian world to catch up with Paul, among other things, in regards to how marriage should operate. Paul’s notion of the self-sacrificing husband who reflects Jesus as he relates to his wife was certainly picked up by some of the Church Fathers, and later by some Reformers and Puritans, but the overall trajectory of Western society, aside from some exceptional cases, was simply to rehearse a number of variations on the traditional Greco-Roman pater-familial model in which the matriarch of any given household is either literally or functionally the “property” of her husband. That is, of course, just one example of how the linguistic “echo-chamber” plays out. 

Unfortunately, so-called “postmodernist” authors generally use such jargon-heavy language that their writings are borderline incomprehensible, so even when they have a salient point, it only rarely comes across in digestibly. They seldom bother trying to communicate in plain language because they’re usually just preaching to the choir. 

But even when they are only preaching to the choir, they are preaching a message that, at the bottom of things, ought to be heeded. They go off the rails, of course, and often. 

One needn’t read far to find exactly what I’m talking about: There is, implicit in much “deconstructive” discourse, the rather indefensible presumption that all “norms,” everywhere – regardless of origin or intention – are inherently oppressive

I hope that I don’t have to explain why that assumption is problematic; If you can’t imagine why so many twenty-somethings are immobilized by a kind of formless and void nihilism, I might suggest that it’s because we told them that “all truth claims are power plays.” 

But claims like that are “postmodernism” at its very laziest, and least astute. These implications are by no means necessary, or intrinsic to the phenomenon. Lyotard defines postmodernism as “a distrust of meta-narratives” and it may be that. 

But it is worth distinguishing between “a frankly uncritical distrust toward meta-narrative in general” and “a measured, conscientious posture of gentle suspicion.”

Who would disagree that it is certainly worth asking whether “the dominant assumptions of our culture,” at any given time, are actually correct? It ought to go without saying that if more people asked precisely that question of our culture, today, more people might be willing to consider that the Christian faith is not an artifact from a less-civilized age. If nothing else, I guess, it’s cute that we think we hate “postmodernism”: We are all, all of us, resolutely “postmodern” in our thinking, which, in itself, ought to remind us that very term itself is far less narrow than we imagine it to be.

Celsus, And The Galilean Bastards

After a particularly intense bout of official persecutions, the pagan emperor Gallienus granted Christians the first ever Edict of Toleration in CE 261.

“To the bishops,” it was addressed: “I have ordered the bounty of my gift to be declared through the world that the pagans should depart from your places of worship.”

Gallienus continues: “And for this purpose you may use this copy of my rescript that no one may molest you.”

Of course, these privileges “which you are now enabled lawfully to do,” Gallienus is quick to note, “have already for a long time been conceded by me,” at least, in theory.

“Therefore Aurelius Cyrenius,” the edict concludes, “who is the chief administrator of affairs, will observe this ordinance which I have given.”

He wasn’t doing them a favor; State suppression, the more familiar tack, had only turned the new religionists bolder. Left to their own devices, Christians mostly kept to themselves.

They were obnoxious, sure. Their ideology the most intolerant of progressivisms and their incessant refrain that there were no gods but God threatened, quite literally, to unstitch society. But in practice, they were inocuous, or tried to be.

Their most influential figure, Paul, had exhorted them to lead quiet lives, to work with their hands, to be good neighbors, to mind their own bloody business. And some of them had complied. But lynchings, sporadic and public, had emboldened them.

They disbelieved in “Heros,” because humanity was sinful, and “every inclination of the heart was wickedness” (Gen 6:5), but to die willingly, peaceably, wishing good for your murderer, was a kind of sanctified “antiheroism,” which they called “martyrdom.”

And so long as they romanticized a Jesus-shaped death, they could not be contained through heavy-handed coercion. They were better left alone by the State: While persecutions bred devotion, comfort might breed nominalism.

As such, a plan was hatched: Gallienus would lay off the bloodshed and the sharpest minds available would be commissioned to slay the Christic Beast in a wholly different way: Good old-fashioned debate.

As it turns out, the greatest of these sparring partners had been dead for 80 years. Celsus, the celebrated polemicist, wrote a sprawling work somewhere in the final decades of the second century cataloguing in painstaking detail the extent of the Christian menace.

“Anyone ignorant, or stupid, uneducated, or childish,” he wrote, “By the fact that the Galileans (Christians) admit that these people are ‘worthy of God,’ they show that they want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable and stupid, and only slaves, women, and little children.”

He thought it was an insult. “They would never enter a gathering of intelligent men,” he goes on. “But whenever they see adolescent boys and a crowd of slaves and a company of fools they push themselves in and show off.”

For Celsus, the measure of an ideology is the breed of folks it appeals to. “We see wool workers, cobblers, laundry workers, the most illiterate and bucolic yokels, who would not dare to say anything at all in front of their elders and masters,” he sneers. “And the Gallileans persuade them to their folly.”

His gripes weren’t new. About a century earlier, Tacitus (at his most Nietzschean) accused the Galileans of “hatred of the human race,” which carried with it a few associations: They only rarely married outsiders, condemned and abstained from gladiatorial games, avoided governmental positions because that often required one to deliver ‘death sentences’ (on which they frowned most vocally).

And more: Although they raised no objection to the existence of the military per se, Christian soldiers were forbidden from the act of killing, even in combat, which struck the average Roman as unpatriotic at best and treasonous at worst.

There was a kind of pseudo-“religious pluralism” in the empire, but only in the sense that occupants were allowed to sacrifice to whichever cult they found most palatable. Irreligion was virulently opposed, as was any religious practice or conviction that may detract from your “patriotism.” You were free, in other words, to choose from an array of sanctioned cultic devotions which were carefully curated to ensure that your relationship to the gods did not hinder your usefulness to the emperor. Christianity was a spoke in Rome’s wheel.

So the “human race,” in this context, very much meant the machinery of Rome – because that’s what “humanity” was, in those days, in the empire. Those who were conducive (in the right ways) to the flourishing of Rome were “humans,” and those who weren’t, weren’t.

There were some loose parameters by which this might be gauged: The “nobility” were “human” by virtue of their birth. The logic was not complicated: Humans give birth to humans. Beasts don’t. If you were born in the underclass, you were born “subhuman.”

Your lot may not be entirely hopeless: Over generations, a proletarian “beast” might, by some good fortune, climb the hierarchical ladder and acquire citizenship for themselves, which conferred “humanity” upon the recipient – generally. There were exceptions, and your citizenship (and with it your “humanity”) was disproportionately easy to lose, a fact which likely weighed on every natural born citizen. There was a kind of cosmic intersection between “the flourishing of Rome” and the stratifying of its occupants into varying gradations of “humanness,” the hierarchy itself imbued with religious significance as each caste played its role in currying the favor of the gods. The Christians, by virtue of existing, disrupted this balance. 

“We do not go to your feast but we patronize your industries,” replied Tertullian. “We do not buy Laurel crowns but we buy flowers. We do not buy incense for temples but we do for burial.”

More to the the point, “We do not contribute to the temples but we give more for alms than you do,” he said, and of course, “We improve business in that we do not defraud.” Thus, whatever objections their detractors may have, they “really lose by putting us to death because if we are Christians we are good men. If we are not good men, we are not truly Christians.” The measure of one’s fitness to carry on in the community (rather uniquely) was not in their “strength,” or “virility,” but their goodness.

Elsewhere, Origen insisted that the habits and norms with which “the name of Jesus” imbues His followers not only oughtn’t be threatening or suspicious, but also that His name “implants a wonderful meekness and tranquility of character, and a love to mankind and a kindness and gentleness.”

In other words, what appeared to Tacitus and Celsus to be “a hatred of the human race” was in fact the opposite. The Galileans didn’t “hate the human race. They redefined “human.” The Romans saw in their borderline pacifism a “hatred for the human race” because this potentially jeopardized Rome’s ability to defend its interests at home and abroad through force. But the Galileans refused to take a sword to the necks of Rome’s enemies – because Rome’s enemies were human, too. There was no “cultural grammar” for this. It just looked like obstinacy.

*

In a way, Gallienus got his wish. The early Church’s most impressive idiosyncrasies did not last forever. As Galileanism transitioned from utter obscurity into the dominant cultural force in the once-pagan empire, it became increasingly difficult to prevent cultural syncretism, often to disastrous results.

It was customary, for example, for the emperor to redirect State funds toward the cult of his preference. As a matter of course, then, the whole populace would be taxed in service thereof, and the cultic beneficiaries would change each time the emperor did. Typically, this was carried out with minimal consequences on the ground. While there was a kind of “patronage” system in which the Patrician class would make incredibly public (and generally negligible) donations to “the poor,” the pagan temples played a marginal role in this, so the shifting of State resources from one cult to the next was never earth-shattering.

But how, exactly, would Constantine, whose chosen cult, in an unprecedented move, was the cult of the Galileans, carry out redirecting State funds to a group who, unique among the religions of the empire, wholly denied the legitimacy of all of its competing cults? Rather brutishly, it turns out. He forcibly seized a number of pagan temples and bestowed them to Galileans for use as churches. Responses were mixed and many opposed the move, but the Galileans were in no position to turn down a gift from the emperor, and this practice became a barbarous precedent.

These tensions came to a head when, some time after emperor Theodosius I had banned Pagan sacrifices outright, the Bishop of Alexandria sought to renovate an abandoned temple for use as a church.

Alexandria had, for centuries, been perhaps the most of violent city in the empire, and when the renovation crew found human bones beneath the temple, certain groups declared the project to be a “burial desecration.” A riot broke out, and violent mobs began targeting Christians throughout the city.

As Christian retaliations, unfortunately, began, the mobs dwindled. In a panic, a group of them kidnapped several Christians and walled themselves in the abandoned temple of Serapis. No one was able to breach the walls of the Temple; The captors tortured and then killed their hostages.

Afraid that rogue outfits might seek vengeance by targeting pagans throughout the city, Theodosius declared the slain hostages to be martyrs. Lest the Serapeum itself become a monument for past grudges, he ordered it demolished. To avoid the issue in the future, several other abandoned temples were demolished, and the pagan idols therein were melted down and (in another move that became precedent) their precious metals redistributed to the poor.

So the relationship between the Church, which had its roots as an “alt-community” whose strange egalitarian social vision had proven contagious among those on the margins of imperial city life, and the dominant culture of Rome proved mutually modifying. Which is to say that the Church was enculturating elements of the empire even as it was inculturating its own values into the very structure of Rome. So much so, for example, that when the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate did finally wrench control back from a line of Christian emperors, the empire was already irreversibly changed.

There was no use, he realized, in trying to reclaim the empire for “the paganism of old.” Christianity had redefined “humanity,” had rendered unsustainable the stories that Rome told about itself.

Less inspiring but equally consequential, the razing of many pagan temples had cataclysmic effects on the populace that went beyond simply depriving pagans of places to worship. In the popular imagination, many of these temples, like the Serapeum, were believed to be indestructible –  they were protected, the story went, by supernatural forces who would strike down any mortal who laid violent hands on them.

So when, only a few decades after Julian, a demolition crew took a hammer to the temple statue of Serapis after the great riot and were not struck down from above, what was left of the cult of Serapis largely jumped ship and sought catechesis among the Galileans instead – the Galilean had quite literally killed the gods.

Even before the Serapeum incident, Julian realized that if there was to be any popular “revival” of the old religions, paganism itself would have to change. So he set about on a project to bring popular paganism into greater conformity with the egalitarian norms embodied by the Galileans. Pagan temples were converted into community centers, in a sense, so that, like the churches that had now come to displace them, they would also be food pantries, lodging centers, refuges. Even where Christianity did not eclipse paganism, it transformed it.

The result being that only a handful of centuries after Celsus, the habits that he mocked in the Galileans had begun to remake the world. Celsus did not live long enough to be gloriously disappointed by this turn of events, which is a shame, I suppose, for those folks who like to “keep score.” But it wasn’t a shame. Because Rome’s capitulation, largely from the ground up, and not vice versa, to the strange ethos of the Galileans he so derided meant, among other things, that his great, great, great grandchildren grew up in a better Rome, and a better world, and their grandchildren, too.

Aronofsky’s Demiurge (A Spoiler-y Reflection on ‘Mother!’)

mother-poster

As the credits began to roll, the audience with whom I saw Darren Aronofsky’s newest film, Mother!, reacted with hushed groans and awkward laughter. This was not the film anyone expected to see. I freaking loved it.

The trailers were vague, but suggested that the film, which stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as an unnamed couple whose home is gradually invaded by an ever-multiplying family of belligerent troglodytes, was going to be a horror film, or at least a thriller or some sort. And it was, although one so oblique that it hardly counts as a film at face value, let alone a genre film.

My roommate turned to me and barked, “What did you bring me to?” before rubbing his beard pensively and continuing, “I’ll be thinking about this movie for a year.”

If you’ve seen, like, anything Darren Aronofsky has released in the last decade or so (and, really, anything he’s ever released) it will not be surprising that his new home-invasion thriller is actually a spiritual meditation.

There are, I imagine, plenty of articles that will lay out precisely how each of Mother!‘s jarring, phantasmagorical images correspond to this or that passage from the Bible, or the Talmud, or the great works of Hebrew Pseudepigrapha, but I want to zero in on a handful of specifics, and the implications thereof.

There will be spoilers ahead. Actually, all of them. If you have not seen the film and aren’t planning on it, I have included a fairly detailed synopsis below. If you have not seen it and plan on seeing it, read no further.

*

Not unlike his 2014 retelling of the biblical story of Noah and the ark, Mother! is an eco-parable. Rather ingeniously, he dramatizes the biblical story of creation and the Fall – and of multiplying and filling the earth, and, finally, of the flood – from the perspective of Mother(!) Earth.

Jennifer Lawrence is Mother Earth, envisioned here as the nameless bride of a nameless Javier Bardem – a poet, and an illustrious one. They are in the process of rebuilding their house, a beautiful mansion situated on the quiet countryside. It burned down before they met, and our heroine has taken it upon herself to restore it to its former glory.

Soon, a strange man (played by Ed Harris) arrives at their doorstep. He is new in own, and had been under the impression that their idyllic mansion was a Bed & Breakfast. Javier Bardem forgets that hotels exist and invites him to stay the night, much to his young bride’s annoyance. Their unexpected visitor manages to traverse one boundary line after another – he smokes in the house, even after the woman of the house requests that he stop, he pries into their personal life in ways that anyone marginally versed in etiquette would know to be inappropriate. And he is sick, quite so: before retreating to bed, Lawrence witnesses her husband assisting  their guest as he expels the contents of his stomach into their toilet. In a blink-and-you-miss-it shot, we catch a glimpse of the strange gash in Ed Harris’s side.

The next morning, his insufferable wife (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, also unannounced. Lawrence discovers that while she slept, her husband gave Harris permission to invite his wife to stay with them “for as long as they need”. Naturally, she is not pleased, as their guest’s wife proves to be even more prying and unsavory than he. More than anything, she presses – and presses some more – as to why the couple does not have children. Noticing Lawrence’s reticent body language – as these types always do – she corners her while the men are out exploring and reframes her question: Why doesn’t she want to be a mother?

Noticing the terror in her eyes – as these types always do – Pfeiffer realizes that she does want children.

Almost on cue, Harris and Pfeiffer’s own children show up uninvited, barging into the house to have a shouting match, which ends with the elder son bludgeoning his younger brother to death in the den before fleeing the scene of the crime.

Bardem leaves Lawrence alone to follow the family to the hospital. A few hours later, he returns alone. Finally, she thinks, things may return to normal.

They won’t, of course. Without warning, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer return to the house – with their entire extended family. Our heroine is horrified. Her husband welcomes them with open arms and invites them to make themselves at home. Without mentioning it to her, he had invited the family to hold a funereal gathering in their kitchen.

More friends and family arrive by the minute in full funeral dress, with baked goods wrapped in tin-foil and absolutely no sense of restraint toward their host’s property: While Bardem delivers a speech in honor of the deceased son, rowdy guests co-opt the master bedroom to have sex while others dislodge a washroom sink from the wall, breaking the water main and flooding the house. Bardem doesn’t mind, but Lawrence finally snaps, expelling the guests from her house in a rush of fury so commanding that even her husband counts the cost and opts against gas-lighting her again.

After the dust settles, they are alone again. Still riding the adrenaline rush of the evening, She breaks again from her passive disposition and challenges him to have sex with her. He obliges, and she conceives.

We jump forward approximately nine months. The house is finally complete, and the baby is almost due. Bardem has finally completed his magnum opus, which he gives to Lawrence to read. “It’s perfect,” she says, “It’s beautiful.” His publishers agree. And so do his readers. It sells out nearly immediately.

As she sets the table for dinner one night, there is a knock at the door.

It is a group of devotees. They have come from far and wide to meet the poet. Lawrence asks him to send them away so that they can dine together in peace, to which he agrees. After a few moments, he has not returned. She checks on him to find that the group has multiplied, and he has done nothing to deter them.

Several devotees enter the house through a side door and begin using her appliances. She tries to kick them out, but they inform her that “the poet says that his house is our house.” More devotees force their way inside, and his publicist spots her. Gleefully, she clutches Lawrence’s face, “It’s the inspiration!”

The devotees begin tearing the house apart. One steals the phone while Lawrence tries to call the police. “That’s my phone!” She cries. “I have to have something of the poet’s!” the devotee snarls back, and then hobbles away.

Police arrive and begin shouting at the guests through a megaphone, followed by a swat team in riot gear. They open fire on the devotees, who scream in terror and become even more destructive as they scramble. The pregnant Lawrence runs for safety, looking for her husband. She happens upon his publicist, who warmly greets her as she fires rounds into the covered heads of several hostages. “Close the door,” she says.

The house becomes a war zone – literally. Grenades go off in the corner of the screen, and the house is filled with dust and ashes. A friendly soldier grabs Her and pulls her to safety. As he instructs her the way to the safe zone, his skull breaks apart from the impact of a sniper’s bullet. She screams and flees, now bloodied from the commotion, up the stairs, which are lined with guest reaching out their arms in religious devotion to her pregnant stomach. They’re awaiting the coming of the child inside her. She begins to go into labor.

At the top of the staircase, she finds her husband. He hugs her and brings her into the master bedroom to have the baby. is born, healthy and strong. Bardem hands him to Her. The commotion in the house has died down. “Send them away,” she entreats her much-Beloved husband. “They’ll listen to you.”

He ignores her, and asks to hold his child. She refuses until he sends them away. “I could not get them to leave even if I tried.” He replies, and asks again for his child. “That’s not true,” She snaps, “And you know it.” She holds her ground.

“I do not want them to go.” He finally admits.

She clutches her baby desperately while he menacingly scoots his chair closer. “Give me my son.” He growls. She doesn’t.

Hours pass by, and she has fallen asleep. When she wakes, her baby is gone. Rushing out the bedroom doors, she sees the crowds passing the baby amongst themselves, touching him with their hands, oooh-ing and ahhh-ing. She screams. “They just want to touch him!” Bardem laughs, enraptured at the love that enlivens the crowd.

As they pass the child along to one another, its neck breaks.

Lawrence screams in terror and sprints down the stairs to take back the corpse of her baby. When she arrives, it is on a platter, half-eaten. The devotees have baby in their teeth. She falls over, sobbing uncontrollably. Bardem picks her up. “They killed him!” she cries. “I know,” He whispers gently, “But we must find a way to forgive them.”

This is the last straw for Mother. Calmly, she lifts herself to her feet, makes her way to the basement, and opens the furnace. Pouring oil all over the floor, she lights a match, and sets the mansion and all of its occupants ablaze.

Except for her husband, who comes out unscathed.

He carries her back up the stairs and into the ruins of their home.

“What are you?” She asks, as she begins to draw her final breaths.

“I am I.” He smiles.

“Where are you taking me?”

“To the beginning.” He whispers. “We must start over again.”

“Why? Why am I not enough for you?” She protests.

“Nothing will ever be enough.” He says. “Or else I could not create.”

She gives him permission to use what is left of her love for him to create the mansion afresh. It begins to reanimate around them. We watch as the first frames of the film play out before us again – the burnt house becomes new again, and a new woman appears in His bed. The events of the film will play out again, apparently, as they had before the events of the film, perhaps forever.

*

The subtext is fairly on the nose: We are guests in Mother(!) Earth’s house, and She can expel us, infinitely, on loop, if she so desires, as we see in the Bible.

Indeed, the first eleven chapters of Genesis narrate a cyclical expulsion and recreation narrative: In Genesis 1-2, God creates, and in Genesis 3, humanity is expelled from the microcosm of Eden. In Genesis 4, Cain is expelled from ‘the land’ for Killing his brother. Finally, in Genesis 6, the Earth expels humanity once and for all: God opens the floodgates of heaven, and the world is flooded, killing everyone, save for the ‘righteous’ family of Noah.

But the ‘righteous’ ones whom God preserved to create the world afresh are a cancer, too, and Noah’s son Ham is expelled from ‘the land’, and Noah becomes a drunkard, and their descendants build the Tower of Babel in a strange campaign to dethrone the gods. They’re expelled, too. Around this point, the reader gets the sense that there’s not going to be a version of this that doesn’t end in expulsion.

Which leads the reader to pose the question: Why did God create, instead of not create?

And here lies the – perhaps unintentional – subtext beneath the subtext.

Aronofsky’s Mother! offers an answer to the reader’s question.

Why did God create – why does He invite guests into His home whom He knows will destroy it? Because His appetite for love is insatiable, and they will love Him. ‘Mother Earth’ is not enough. His capacity is bottomless. He craves the affirmation of His creatures like the Poet craves the admiration of his devotees. He is like an artist who creates from neurosis – to be understood, to be loved, to be wanted by multitudes. Nothing, and no one, is enough.

And so, embedded within Aronofsky’s eco-parable is a kind of theo-critique. That is, intentional or not, the message of the film is that ‘Father God’ puts ‘Mother Earth’ through endless cycles of abuse to oblige His devotees, ultimately, because He treasures the love that they pour out upon Him.

*

I remember a dreary Sunday morning, sometime during the latter Bush’s Presidency, when I asked my Sunday School teacher if God was lonely, if that was how come He made everything and everybody. She cocked her head and said, “What do you think?” I said, “I think I’d be lonely if it was just me up there in heaven all those years with nothing to do.” Another kid chimed in, “That sounds boring.” And another, “I’d make everything football. And then it would all be football. Then I’d never be bored, ’cause it would all be football.”

One little girl was the theologian of the group, though I am not sure for which religion: She raised her hand and said, “Maybe ’cause he wanted somebody to love Him.” The teacher nodded her head and said, “Ahhh,” before writing on the board: “GOD CREATED MAN TO HAVE FELLOWSHIP WITH HIM.” She went on, “Imagine if you didn’t have aaaaaanyone who loved you. You wouldn’t be very happy then, would you?” She underlined the sentence that she had written. “God made everyone so that eeeeeeveryone would love Him.”

We ohhhh‘d in unison. That was the day that I learned that God is a parasite who creates people because He’s lonely and wants to be loved. Now, it sounds pathetic when you say it in a sentence, and Mother! will be lambasted by Christian talk show hosts and culture warriors for implying it, but it’s probably what most people believe, at least implicitly.

And so, Mother! does not amount to an ‘attack on the Christian faith’ (as several more uppity critics have have clamored) so much as an ecological critique on what is probably one of our culture’s standard assumptions about God. The offense of Mother!‘s ending, one hopes, will be jarring enough to shake the public loose of this vision of God as sycophant and God as leech. 

Indeed, Bardem’s Poet bears no substantive resemblance to the Trinitarian God at the center of the Christian story. He is more like a demiurge, perhaps, even, Marcion’s demiurge. He’s an antigod, who drinks people dry to satiate what’s lacking in Himself, for the love they can give Him, who enlivens worlds to crucify them for His iniquity.

This is as good a starting point as I can think of to introduce people to the God who really did create the world from Love – not Mother Earth’s Love, which He takes out on loan, but His own Love, which He pours out, to overlay the vast nothing that covers the face of the deep, to create beings who are not Himself, not to plumb their depths for the Love that they can feed Him, but to spill the Love from His own veins into theirs, to multiply His own contentment into them, to build a cosmos out of people He does not need, with Love He does not lack, to propagate His own joy into creatures He will not forsake.

And, as such, this view of God – the Christian view – changes how we answer the questions that the expulsion narratives in the early chapters of Genesis pose to us. Like Bardem’s Poet, He offers His son to be torn apart and devoured by the masses. But the two couldn’t be further from each other: The Poet gave His son as a sacrifice to appease his devotees – to wring more affirmation from their weary bodies, to enjoy their awe. The  Trinitarian God at the center of the Christian narrative, however, gave up the Son so that He could create the world. The Godhead – Father, Son, and Spirit – knew, like the Poet, that His creatures would destroy each other and destroy His ‘house’, and more – they would grow so destructive that  they would necessitate their own destruction. And so the Godhead – Father, Son, and Spirit – determined together before creation, that the Son would present Himself as a sacrifice to redeem God’s creatures. The God whom we meet in Jesus is everything Javier Bardem’s demiurge isn’t.

*

Mother! is a better film than Noah, although Noah has better theology. Whereas Noah saw God Batting in Mother Earth’s corner against a belligerent Humanity,  Mother!   breaks ‘Father God’ and ‘Mother Earth’ apart without warrant, as though each have conflicting agendas.

Nevertheless, like Noah before it, Mother! proves itself to be a near perfect jumping-off point to share the gospel with filmgoers jostled enough by Aronofsky’s provocative suggestions that they are moved to search the scriptures.

mother-poster-jpeg