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Individual ideologies and theologies give us incomplete pictures of reality. The world is too complex. No Ideology or theology can explain everything. Every ideology and every theology overlooks or misses something. There is always something that resists symbolization. This is the view of Slovenian philosopher Slovoj Zizek who I have accessed primarily through a book called “The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission Towards an Evangelical Political Theology” by David E. Fitch.

Resurrection

An “irruption of the real” occurs when someone takes the beliefs and tenets of his or her faith or ideology to the extreme. Jesus did this when he put his life on the line because he believed that the one and all-powerful God of Israel would save him, overthrow the rulers and authorities of this world, redeem and restore Israel to its rightful place among the nations, and take dominion over the world (Mark 14:62 and 15:34). The truth is suddenly revealed often in a humiliating fashion so that people are forced to confront the fact that what they thought would happen, what they believed, didn’t come to pass, at least not as they expected.

This is the story of the Gospels. The disciples expect the Messiah to be a victorious king who would defeat Israel’s enemies (Mark 10:37). Something amazing did happen, but it wasn’t what they expected.

This is the story of the Gospels. The disciples expect the Messiah to be a victorious king who would defeat Israel’s enemies (Mark 10:37). Something amazing did happen, but it wasn’t what they expected.

That something was the resurrection and the rise of the Jesus movement. Not all “Irruptions of the Real” are victorious as the resurrection. Most end in humiliation and the reexamination and reformulation of one’s beliefs. Without the resurrection, Jesus’s ministry would have ended the same way, another prophet and martyr killed by the authorities (Mark 15:34).

But that’s not what happened. Some of Jesus’s followers, including Peter and James, had visions of Jesus after his death (1 Corinthians 15:5). This led them to believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead.

In this article, we examine Fitch’s concept of an “irruption of the Real” and apply it to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. We will talk about Zizek’s concepts of “master signifiers” and “sublime objects” and the role they play in motivating us to organize around ideologies and beliefs. Fitch, an Evangelical himself, uses Zizek to demonstrate how some Evangelical beliefs became disconnected from what they meant generations ago and now fail to serve God’s mission in the world.

Fitch points to the decline in the public perception of Evangelicals to suggest that there is something wrong with Evangelical witness in America. Some of his insights can be applied to Christianity more broadly. He says “there are reasons to suspect that our social presence as Evangelicals has become inhospitable to the world and God’s mission in it.”

Christians should reflect the Gospel they preach. “Evangelicalism has become an ‘empty politic’ driven by what we are against instead of what we are for,” Fitch argues. Evangelical beliefs have turned Evangelicals into something inconsistent with what they claim to believe.

Fitch defines “ideology” and, in my opinion, it’s corollary “theology,” as “a set of beliefs and practices that bind a people together into a functioning community or politic. In Marxist terms, ideology is that naive or ‘false consciousness’ which constructs social reality for people. It is what people assume about the way things are and how these assumptions are maintained in order to live together.”

Our political and social systems are composed of institutions, rituals, social norms, and even language itself. Zizek calls this the “Symbolic Order.” The “Symbolic Order” is a type of groupthink that shapes who we are and our life together. It appeals to our desires and insecurities.

Political systems are held together by ideologies and theologies. All political and theological systems are founded upon the story of some early trauma that tells us who we are and what and who we are for or against. Ideology and theology hold us together by covering over social antagonisms and internal contradictions oftentimes by setting us against others.

The religious and political beliefs that identify us a part of a religious or political group are what Zizek and others have called “master-signifiers.” Master-signifiers bind a community together by aligning them for or against something. They are sufficiently vague to play into people’s desires, and they create a fantasy around which people can rally without actually referring to anything concrete.

Every ideology or theology provides a “fantasy” that allows people to act as if we all believe the same thing when in reality we don’t.

Every ideology or theology provides a “fantasy” that allows people to act as if we all believe the same thing when in reality we don’t. People do not believe in things like “freedom” or “God” in the same way, yet it is this very nebulous character that allows us to act as if we all believe the same thing. Things like the “Kingdom of God” to Christians, the Socialist Utopia to Marxists, and the “free market” to capitalists are vague fantasies around which people rally yet they have no real meaning except to signify who and what we are for or against. “Master-signifiers” are more about the antagonisms that underlay our social relations than they are about any ideal or plan of action.

Zizek calls this “the Real.” The only things that are real are the antagonisms that the ideology or theology covers over and misdirects often against some feared or loathsome other. For SocialIsts, the “other” could be the dreaded “neoliberals” or the capitalist loving property owners Marx called the “bourgeois.” For capitalists, their bogeymen are financial regulations and the rise of the working class. The scapegoats for Evangelical Christians are those they consider to be morally degenerate, such as homosexuals and liberals.

These false beliefs can cause believers to be complicit with brutal and exploitative systems of domination, such as totalitarian regimes, fascist dictatorships, racist institutions, and theocracies. Each of these systems uses ideologies or theologies to justify their existence and to explain why they continue on their economic or political course. This is true for democratic and economic systems, as well.

Using Kant’s concept of the sublime, Zizek describes “ideology” as vastly more powerful than we can perceive or understand objectively. Under the influence of ideology, the beliefs and ideas we rally around and pursue together become unobtainable “Sublime Objects.” We feel great pleasure lusting after them and their allure holds us captive to the ideology.

Things like “the Party” in some Communist regimes, “God” in theocracies, and “freedom” in democracies are all Master-signifiers elevated to the level of “Sublime Objects.” No one can really pin them down yet everyone under the influence of the ideology is said to believe in them. The concepts are nebulous enough so than many people can believe in their own way yet powerful enough to rally an entire people around a unifying fantasy.

For Zizek, fundamental antagonisms lie at the core of every political system. For example, the ideology of capitalism covers over the inequality between the poor workers and the rich elite they work for by promoting the idea of “Freedom.” These antagonisms are the only things that are real in the system.

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Fitch goes on to describe what he calls an “Irruption of the Real.” An “Irruption of the Real” occurs when excessive fealty to an ideology reveals the underlying antagonisms and emptiness of the ideology. Irruptions of the real are like tears in the political fabric that reveal too much so as to pave the way for further unraveling.

Another, perhaps overly simplistic way of saying it is that an “Irruption of the Real” is that moment of truth when everyone realizes that the emperor has no clothes. These awkward events reveal the absurdity of what we say we believe by revealing the contradictions and underlying antagonisms behind the ideology or theology that upholds the system.

Irruptions of the Real can make room for revolutionary change. An ideology can lose its hold over people allowing leaders and movements to emerge to more directly engage the system's failures. Ironically, these irruptions are not instigated by those who oppose the system. Instead, they are caused by those who take their ideology or theology too seriously.

Ideology is immune to overt criticism, says Zizek. Every ideology has already “internalized its own critique.”Outside criticism merely affords ideology the opportunity to recreate itself. As such, an ideology can only be overthrown from within.

This is exactly what Zizek suggests we do, take the ideology or theology to the extreme to reveal its absurdity. This is called the “tactic of overidentification” or “subversive conformity.” Only total conformity can make explicit the implications of the ideology and reveal the emptiness its core.

Political systems are inherently unstable. “Irruptions of the Real” happen all the time. Works of art, cinema or poetry can reveal the absurdity of what we say we believe. There can also be unintentional irruptions when an adherent takes the ideology too far or too literally thereby exposing the contradictions, antagonisms and lack underlying the ideology.

“Irruptions of ‘the Real” expose the contradictions at the center of our politics. They reveal that which is left unsaid, what or who is being excluded, and what drives the system. “Irruptions of the Real” expose the sources and forces behind the ideology’s continued dominance.

Zizek would describe these moments of Truth as “decisive revolutionary acts.” An ideology can lose its hold over people, and new leaders can emerge who more directly engage the system’s depravity and lack. This can only happen from within the movement.

An Irruption is a forcible or violent invasion or uprising from within, as opposed to an eruption which is bursting out. Ideologies collapse from within. By taking the ideology to its logical conclusion, we reveal the contradiction and emptiness at its core.

Jesus took Judaism seriously, so seriously that he went to the cross believing God would save him (Mark 14:62). In the Gospel of Matthew, the chief priests and elders ridicule Jesus for trusting God (Matthew 27:41-43). He thought God would save him, but look where it got him! Hanging on a tree! Dying! Cursed by God! (Matthew 27:39-44; Deuteronomy 21:23). There is more than a little irony when priests ridicule those who trust in God.

Just as Jesus “breathes his last,” Matthew tells us:

“the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection, they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was God’s son!” (Matthew 27:50-54).

In other words, there was an incredible irruption that “shook the earth.” The tombs of the saints were opened and the bodies of the dead arose and entered the holy city. Even the centurion, the one most indoctrinated by Roman Imperial dogma, could see the truth. The imagery represents an unveiling of the contradictions at the core of Roman Imperial theology and the collapse of that system.

The resurrection represents victory over the powers. The crucifixion looks at first like humiliation, and then something amazing happens. The movement is reborn. Some of Jesus’s followers have experiences of the risen Christ. This leads some of them to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

This inspires stories of the resurrection as God's vindication. The true ruler of the world is among us in the form of the "Son of Man," which is an idiom for "humanity. Our leader ought to serve us, not the other way around (Matthew 23:11).

Our system and the ideology that supports it tells us that the competition of interests groups ultimately leads to a compromise that best suits us all. This is not the biblical way. Rather than represent our interests, the Gospel tells us to change our priorities.

We are to “proclaim good news to the poor,” “release the prisoners, and “set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:17-19). We are to “bring down the powerful,” lift up the lowly, feed the hungry, and “send the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). We are to distribute our resources based on need and share everything in common just as early Christians did (Luke 2:44-45).

RichProcida

Have I gone too far? Have I taken the Gospel too seriously? Too literally? I hope so.

Rich Procida