Anthony Kelly, complicity, Neil Postman, tv, violence

On Complicity and Engagement

Some may find the pictures below disturbing. The intent is not to disturb or shock for the purposes of sickening the reader into numbness. They primarily function to point towards our complicity.

Union is holding a conference on empire, “Empire: Resistance and Reimagination.” But they are far from alone. Empire studies seems all the rage right now. The sole purpose of some theologians is to engage complicity. And not to be left out, some fellow bloggers have focused on complicity in one form or another lately as well. Talk of complicity seems to be in the air. However, complicity goes deeper than a mere theological fad. One could argue that the constant question of complicity thoroughly permeates theology, if theology is being rightly done.

And so, how do we do Seminary, or more general, how are we Christians to live in a country of power? Power to abuse, that is. Importantly, there is little room in the Jesus story for those who kill. In the narrative, we’re the centurion at the foot of the cross. Covered in blood that is not our own, how do we read the bible with stained hands? To complicate reading, and indeed living as well, we do not exist apart from our context. We (or at least I) live in a milieu that is called American society. It is important to note, that in such a society, discourse is fundamentally violent, voyeuristic, and governed by Hollywood/TV.

To say that pop-culture’s imagination is violent is an understatement. We have a culture that relishes imaginative situations, which demand the good hero resort to gladiatorial violence and Machiavellian means.1 The beauty is in the blood that flies.2 “Through the safe distance of the media, we become death-watchers, voyeurs of what has become culturally obscene.”3 This warped view of aesthetics is based on a milieu of voyeuristic entertainment: “Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.”4 Comedian, and social critic, Jon Stewart made this same point when he visited the political show “Crossfire.”5 Even the “news shows” that make space for pundit “discussion” are primarily oriented towards entertainment. What is more, Stewart went on to lament, such entertainment is violent, as indicated by the name of the show and the argumentative action of the participants.

However, television is not simply voyeurism for a few; rather, it functions as a nation-wide, visual bacchanal of violence that forms society’s identity. “Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing itself. Therefore—and this is the critical point—how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged.”6 Quite simply, the visual storytelling of Hollywood, imaginative and adrenaline-filled, defines culture’s categories and the primary category is the unquestioned use of violence and Machiavellian means.

And, so, again, how do we read our Bibles, construct a theology, and live our faith in such a context?

Well. First we have to acknowledge what we look like. We (or at least I do, as a complicit person) look like this:

and this

and this

and this

However, merely acknowledging our hands drenched in blood that is not our own (perhaps stemming from a theology that seeks or cares not about other’s blood) will not do. I am attempting to raise the issue in a way that breaks with our common method of discourse. We must engage complicity, rather than passively take it in like the hermeneutics of Hollywood would like us to do.

So, what should our method be? It can’t be violent or voyeuristic or subject to commercials. It must be loving, dialogical, and free. But what does that look like and how do we maintain that method of discourse?

1. The television show “24” is one of many examples.
2. An example is the movie 300.
3. Anthony Kelly, Eschatology and Hope (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2006), 97.
4. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), 87.
5. CNN’s “Crossfire,” October 15, 2004. A rough transcript may be obtained here:
6. Postman, 92.

I took the pictures above from a performance by a friend of mine for the Empire conference here at Union.