Jason Bivins, “Religion of Fear” (2008)

Jason Bivins, Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (2008)

Grant Wacker insists that students in his seminars learn to distinguish between what is important and what is merely interesting. Religion of Fear makes important contributions to the study of evangelicalism. At the intersection of conservative politics, evangelicalism, and American popular culture, a “religion of fear” has developed. Emerging after the 1960s, this religio-political impulse used the medium of popular culture to scare the Hell out of people—literally. The religion of fear offered readers and audiences an “interpretive template that posits demonological causes for political decline… [one that situates] readers in a historical framework and [defines] for audiences a coherent, unchanging place therein” (9). Part of Bivins’s project consists of documenting the rhetorical and affective strategies of anti-rock preaching, Hell Houses, Jack Chick’s cartoons, and the Left Behind novels. The creators of these works, he argues, act as savvy “technicians of identity,” engaging fear and horror in specific ways to create a politically charged range of acceptable religious identities (16).

Despite its claims to fixity and stability in a declining culture, Bivins declares that the religion of fear is actually animated by two instabilities: 1) the erotics of fear and 2) the demonology within. The “erotics of fear” describes the fact that fear’s discourse, though strongly condemnatory toward American culture, nonetheless displays deep fascination with what is forbidden. Evangelical teenagers compete heartily for the right to play the sexually active, unmarried couple in a Hell House play. Jack Chick’s most interesting drawings show sinners writhing in pain for their wrongdoing. The final book of the Left Behind series contains about a hundred pages of Jesus unleashing blood-drenched wrath on God’s enemies. In the religion of fear, forbidden evil goes on display. The “demonology within” describes the basic irony of using popular culture to condemn popular culture. The pure Christian self is constituted by its Others. You define yourself as a Christian teenager by not listening to Slayer—but this means that you know what Slayer is, that the demons behind the Slayer lyrics might grab hold of you at any moment.

But it’s Bivins’s approach to his subject that makes the most important contributions to the field. Far too few books explore the felt-life of evangelicalism. Emotion takes center stage in this book about political religion—“fear” isn’t some clever heuristic for explaining evangelical theology or its “relation” to governmental politics, it’s a feeling that certain religio-political popular culture artifacts engage and frequently try to produce in viewers, readers, and listeners. Bivins offers new ways of thinking about conservative evangelicalism: rather than an agglomeration of cleanly theological or political “movements,” conservative evangelicalism emerges from this text as a messy mélange of discursive strategies, techniques of identity, body practices, products of entertainment. And Bivins doesn’t shy away from criticizing this religion of fear when he thinks it warrants it. If scholars of religion abandon all claims to normativity and all forms of social critique in the name of taking our subjects “seriously,” we play the conservatives’ game: Bivins doesn’t want to play that game, and argues that scholars should counter fear with “sober political vision” instead of reactionary disavowal or willful indifference (228). Fear thrives when democratic culture atrophies. The point is not for scholars to proceed recklessly against our subjects, but rather to suggest that we scholar-citizens have a responsibility to remain politically engaged. That responsibility doesn’t disappear when we put on the mantel of scholarship. Bivins models his vision of social critique by engaging fear’s political vision seriously and carefully: “fear’s political vision should be contested in the name of politics itself, with the goal of a reaffirmation of a democratic process allowing for the pursuit of reasonable compromises of principled differences” (235).

Joseph Leo Koerner, “The Reformation of the Image” (2008)

Joseph Leo Koerner, The Reformation of the Image (U Chicago, 2008)

Ostensibly, Koerner’s enormous book is “about” an altarpiece painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder for Martin Luther’s parish in Wittenberg (1547). But this book offers far, far more than a history of one painting. Koerner offers a thorough examination of how images changed during the Reformation, how what people thought about images and did with images changed during the Reformation, and how the Reformation happened in images. He begins by noting that art historians have given short shrift to Protestant painting during the Reformation. If Protestants appear at all in histories of this period, they do so as iconoclastic villains. Cranach, whose career straddled the crucial years of Luther’s reforms, is said to have “declined” in genius when making his Protestant paintings—their clear messages and inclusion of texts too didactic to be great art. Rather than join the chorus of detractors, Koerner follows his sources carefully. He not only discovers that Protestants made images as much as they destroyed them, but that the question of images stood at the center of the Reformation. Early Protestants made images to demonstrate the impotence of images; they made images to show the power of the word, the invisibility of the true church, and the transcendence of God. While some radical reformers wanted to abolish images altogether, Martin Luther realized that doing so actually acknowledged the power of images. After all, if images don’t pose a threat, there’s no reason to destroy them. Instead, Luther thought that images could become vehicles to show the power of the Word alone, to reveal the inadequacy of mediations of the Word. By creating images to convey these ideas, Koerner argues, Protestants actually helped to create a recognizably modern understanding of “art”—in particular, the “art” of art historians, who will write endlessly about the meaning of an image, simultaneously declaring that the best works do not convey obvious meanings.

There’s far too much in this book to treat in a short blog post—one reviewer calls it “biblical” in length. So take my comments for what they are and read the thing yourself: it’s worth the effort. Koerner sheds important light on the material processes by which “religious belief” took shape in the modern world. Iconoclastic Protestants radically “linguistified” the sacred, which was “formerly manifested objectively, in special elevated things, places, persons and institutions” (151-152). Where before the actions of the church and her officers held efficacy by divine right, individuals now had to believe, to reveal understanding of the saving Word. The site of sacred action moved from objects to the subjects, to “the language-based activity of understanding and being understood” (152). For Luther, the preacher reads the Word, which reveals the image of Christ crucified, which brings saving grace to the listener who understands (see image above). Even in the most extreme cases, such as Karlstadt’s iconoclasm, “belief” did not just play out on the level of minds and spirits. Things, images, buildings, practices, techniques of the body allowed “belief” to emerge.

By A.T. Coates