This Infinitely Malleable Thing Called Christianity

Yesterday, on Twitter, I posted Jeff Sharlet’s new piece at Killing the Buddha, “Ditto Boys”. Adam (who, I think it’s fair to say, was shaken by it) suggested that I also post it here, for all of you. I won’t summarize it. I’ll just tell you that it’s about Jesus, and American spiritual elitism. So go and read it. And read it all the way to the end. It’s a narrative piece, and it won’t really come together until you’ve read the whole thing.

If you don’t know Jeff Sharlet’s work, he’s written about the Family (which comes up in “Ditto Boys”) for Harper’s. You can access the piece, if you’re a subscriber. Or through ProQuest. He’s also written a book about it (which he talked about on Rachel Maddow.) He knows a lot about the secretive inner core of elite Christian (or Christianish?) organizations in the U.S..

His reporting makes it clear, I think, why these organizations are scary, politically. This isn’t hard to see. But what’s most chilling about “Ditto Boys”, in my view, is how he also illuminates the fact that – distant and removed as these secret organizations may be from the “rest of us” – they’re still a spiritually relevant problem. Playing with the relics of this infinitely malleable thing called Christianity, the people Sharlet writes about here have discarded half of the God-man’s identity.  Their aspirational figure isn’t Jesus the Christ. It’s just Jesus the man (who, it might go without saying, begins to look pretty white, and American, and powerful when cast in their mold). They start with Christianity’s classic man without content, but they see themselves making improvements upon it, sharing in something more exclusive, something better. Feminist and postcolonial analyses can quickly and easily reveal how the social motives and political context of these guys gives way to their theological perversities. But what’s haunting about Sharlet’s piece is that he refuses to stop being haunted by them. He doesn’t simply point out the perversity of the ditto boys. Instead, he gets caught up in their echo chamber. Acknowledging that there is at least some nascent genealogical entanglement that’s playing out through the figure of Jesus, Sharlet seems caught up in a kind of moral struggle: is the spiritual warfare these guys are fighting real? Are they on one side, and he on the other? Or are they closer than he’d like to think?

I have a hard time locating myself, with any real precision or clarity, in the hot mess that is the American field of religious identities. I was raised by atheists and agnostics who’d defected from any real observance of their Christianity or Judaism. In some ways, I guess you could say I was born secular. Which might only mean that there’s always been a lot of invisible Christian figures and mytho-logics bubbling and fermenting just under the surface of my conscious awareness. Graduate work has made me more aware of how this infinitely malleable thing called Christianity has become cemented into my thought structures. And it’s also left me with a sense of confusing complicity. I recognized something, in the questions Sharlet raised at the very end. This seems like a relatively familiar thought process to me: “Look at that scary thing that’s being done with Christianity. Good thing I’m totally dissociated and have nothing to do with it… Right? Right?!” I think he’s captured something about the kind of haunting feeling this can leave behind.

But that’s just my read. What’s yours?



4 thoughts on “This Infinitely Malleable Thing Called Christianity

  1. It was the last footnote with the Nazi riff on “wherever two or three are gathered in my name” that really punched me in the gut. I’ve been studying Schmitt and Peterson lately, and I’m struck by how nihilistic their Catholicism is — the Church demands our obedience basically because it demands our obedience. I asked Beatrice if Christianity was always in principle that nihilistic, and I don’t think it was as long as there was an eschatological horizon (which for Schmitt and Peterson is so distant as to be irrelevant). And yet we can now judge those eschatological hopes to have been illusory, so that perhaps Christianity — with its valorization of obedience and solidarity for their own sakes, etc. — may have been “de facto” nihilistic before the foreclosure of any meaningful eschatological horizon rendered it so “de jure.”

  2. I have, through some strange quirks of fate, met a bunch of people who are a part of this organization including a good number of the leadership, and Sharlet is right on the money about the creepiness factor. But Beatrice, your take on the infinitely malleable character of Christianity is precisely what this group exploits — note that they can give such causal praise to Nazis because they bracket ideology — which is precisely what they (think) they try to do with Christianity. And, yes, I’ve heard this riff in person from one of the leadership. Skin-crawling. It’s unbelievably creepy because their bracketing of any larger framework of ethics or ideology allows them to adopt any local ethics they choose, and one can’t argue with them on their terms. Then it’s simply about power — raw power is the only thing that matters at that point. Which is oddly close to all the totalitarian dictators of the 20th century. Which explains why they are so personally close with dictators and human rights violators, which is also very true.

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