christology, Johann Metz, memory, myth

Beginning a Thesis

This post is partly a response to Religion, Politics, and the Christian Right: Post-9/11 Powers and American Empire by Mark Lewis Taylor, but it also begins the outlining work for the preface of my MA thesis.

Mark Lewis Taylor quite frankly stated his thesis for the book: “9/11 is best interpreted as a ‘mythic moment’ that temporarily ruptured the great myths of American Greatness by which many U.S. residents live” (xi). But the popping of the American bubbles of innocence and safety is not the end for the scope of the book, Taylor continues on to summarize the American response to such an attack: “groups already steeped in cultures of felt defeat and embattlement [i.e. the Christian Right] have harnessed the fear and patriotism of the post-9/11 moment for their ends” (69). Within this context of perceived violation and violent response, Taylor follows the Christian Right as it powers its way through politics, primarily through yoking with the neocons, the rich of wallstreet, and to whom the rich give money – Bush. Taylor then puts forth a response founded in his conception of prophetic spirit and a spirit that is inclusive for both Christian and non-Christian alike.

I liked this book, but that comes as no surprise since Taylor touched on the foundation for my thesis. On one hand I am actually annoyed someone already put this together in a similar way as I have planned, after all I spent a lot of time and my own thought getting to my position without the aid of Taylor. But on the other hand, it is reassuring to see someone else making similar moves, particularly someone who has a readership, and I realize the differences between Taylor and I can only make my argument stronger.

The first difference I noted was that Taylor hardly, if ever, mentions memory, instead he starts with the myth believed, characterizes it and moves on. I plan to start at deeper assumptions like memory and willful self-blindness. It seems from this distinction alone, that Taylor is writing to a different audience; he is writing about those Christians who believe the myths (interestingly he calls them Constantinian Christians a couple of times) while I will be writing both at and about. Also, without talking about memory, it does not leave him the thematic connection to use Metz and his conception of dangerous memory, which I think functions very well within prophetic spirit. Taylor, I suppose, did not have to talk about memory for his argument to hold, but it does feel less substantial.

Taylor also seems to collapse the myths that the Christian Right believes, and while I think there is greater value in distinguishing the myths, Taylor in a very short time and in his own way still summarizes the over all effect of the myths and explicitly makes the connection between Reagan’s hope. Despite Taylor’s seemingly simplification of the myths, he still describes the big picture well and so I do not think I can fault him for the simplicity.

I will write a thesis that cuts across both conservative and liberal movements, as opposed to Taylor’s critique of the Christian Right and some Liberalism, then again, I will be speaking in explicit Christian categories, while Taylor was choosing to address a broader audience. My thesis will cut both ways also because I do not plan on making a Constantinian turn in my argument and faulting the Christian Right alone, rather I will put forth William Cavanaugh’s critique of the nation-state and its anthropological implications for both conservatives and liberals. Despite how much I value the prophetic spirit – which I also see as the viable response to the state and culture – still latent within the prophetic spirit, as explicated by Taylor, seems to be an anthropology derived from our individualizing, enlightenment social contract (the constitution) as opposed to a Christian anthropology of organic relationship.

I also noticed that Taylor mentioned next to nothing about American terrorism. I do not think it a coincidence that because Taylor did not address innocence, or lack there of, Taylor did not also address American terrorism. However, Taylor did mention the idea of American righteousness, and this seems to be a move that covers similar ground at a quicker speed. For Taylor’s vision of the book, with a simplified version of American myths, talking of righteousness begins to strike at what innocence covers without all the argumentation. This was a good way to shore up his arguments, but I still wish he had talked about it to fill out both an explication about the Christian Right and his argument.

My last observation is not a compare and contrast, but noting once again that I was struck at how similar 9/11 and the Christological event of the cross function similarly. In fact I would venture to say, within the nation-state’s myth, creed and liturgy, 9/11 functions theologically as Christ’s cross – deaths of the innocent at the hand of this great monolithic, terrorist evil. I would also continue to say that this “messianic vision” subverts the Christian story and the Christian cross (44). 9/11 as used by the nation-state is a theological subversion of Jesus Christ. And as the Christian story of cross does not end with death, so to does the nation-state supply a hope of the grand future – however an anthropocentric future – most vividly seen in Reagan.


6 thoughts on “Beginning a Thesis

  1. Taylor is currently on sabbatical, but you ought to come down to P-ton and have a chat with him at some point. It sounds like you are on the trail of some things that he would be interested in supporting, or at least hashing out. And, while you are in town, you can have a chat with George Hunsinger, the founder of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. He may have some interesting insights. Check out the interview with him that I conducted.

    The two of these guys are involved in an annual ‘teach in’ about these matters here at PTS, and that might be a good time to make their acquaintance.

  2. d. w. horstkoetter says:

    I didn’t realize that Hunsinger founded NRCAT. I’ve been a signer of that for a long time.

    Funny thing that you mention NRCAT, because while this post doesn’t say it, I’m writing a thesis on torture. What I’ll be trying to do is, first, critique American theology that so easily and without much opposition allows for torture to exist in their life (something for which they are feasibly culpable because their tax money pays for the people and the instruments of torture). Second, develop a political theology that both challenges what I’ve critiqued and at the same time leaves no room for torture to be the outcome of their conviction. In short, talk a lot about my dreams for the church, story/memory, Metz, and liturgical reform.

    Taylor obviously begins to touch on this in his book – he even has a quote from Cavanaugh. And I’ll have to keep Hunsinger in mind. Now it makes a lot more sense as to why Cavanaugh and Stassen were at Princeton a couple years back talking about torture. Thanks for the heads up, I’ll have to keep all that in mind. This semester is really busy, but I’ll see about making my way down from NYC.

  3. d. w. horstkoetter says:

    I too thought the title was incorrect, but I suppose again, that is the nature of the genre for a popular book on politics by a professor from a seminary. Editors really do like to sell those books.

    I can see how the genre for which he was writing (in order to extend his audience as Prof. Dorrien said in class) altered the book in ways that I was unsure about and seemed to simplify the complexities. Simplifying I suppose isn’t a crime when you try to write a more popular work, but simplifying wrongly is, however he seems to do a good job at distilling in a universal language, particularly in an industry that seemingly abhors any theological language outside of a theological press.

    All in all, as a popular book for an introductory read, I think it works because it makes the necessary points, with the right sources and in an accessible language. Although, even as he hit numerous and difficult marks, his book left me wanting a different book and so perhaps I wasn’t the audience he had in mind. Still, it was a helpful read as it provided the big picture and in the end, maybe from that stand point I could recommend the book.

  4. Hi,

    I found your post about Religion, Politics, and the Christian Right by Mark Lewis Taylor very interesting, since I read the book in the context of my own masters thesis about civil religion after 9/11 (

    I also would have wished for Taylor to elaborate on myths a bit more. When he writes about myths, it reminds me of Bercovitch’s idea that America has developed many myths about their founding history, which are expressed since the Puritans through (religious) rhetoric. Such myths were necessary to make sense in a new world, and later to unite a fragmented society. Also, Bellah’s concept of civil religion comprises how a certain set of beliefs, symbols and rituals exists in the U.S. that creates a civil religion for all Americans, including non-Christians, through the use of sacred language (e.g. the flag is holy…).

    Taylor, as I see it, thinks that civil religion and a revival of old myths that unite the nation was boosted after 9/11. 9/11 itself became a “mythic moment.” In my thesis I will look at speeches of G.W. Bush who has used the attacks of 9/11 for his purposes.

    I wonder why you want to “speaking in explicit Christian categories” in your own thesis. The concept of civil religion and the use of myths works for all Americans (i.e. also non-Christians)?

    Also, could you elaborate a little bit more on “Metz and his conception of dangerous memory” and how it could be connected to all this?

    Best wishes for your thesis,

  5. d. w. horstkoetter says:

    I talk in explicit Christian categories because I am a Christian. What I want to engage and shift is Christianity, rather than a larger concept of religion. If I can talk in explicit Christian categories to Christians, then I am speaking the Christian language of faith. However, to speak like that towards another religion, language becomes difficult to translate, if at all. My ultimate concern is for the church and the failings I see. I fail to see the church doing much to address torture, which in my mind, points at a far deeper problem – the church compromised by accepting the state and market as the primary, identity-forming narrative, rather than Jesus and the basileia (see here for more: Basically, speaking in Christian language, I can address Christians who are my kin. I do not mean to shove other religions down or put them aside, but the complexity inherent to each religion demands someone who seeks to or already knows the religion intimately.

    Metz’s conception of dangerous memory is simply put, remembering the Jesus who suffered and letting that memory, and its inherent hope, shape the church today. Metz’s theology incorporates a strong eschatology that encourages hope and a forward-looking orientation within the memory of suffering in the past and present. Christian historical consciousness is a reforming experience, pushing the church to change the surrounding world, not merely itself.

    I also talk about Metz at more length: here ( ), here ( ) and here towards the end of the paper ( ).

    I think between what I’ve written and the links, you should be able to see the connection between Metz’s theology and the integral role of reforming identity — his theology is the answer.

    Let me know if you need anymore clarification. And good luck with your thesis.

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