Almost 4 years ago now, I was in the middle of writing The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission, and I wrote a post on this blog comparing evangelicalism to an ‘empty’ Caffeine-Free Diet Coke. I was referring to philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s famous cultural analyses found in his book, The Fragile Absolute (chapter 3). I later used it in the intro to The End of Evangelicalism?
What led me to this? Soon after writing The Great Giveaway I sensed a need for the church to understand its relation to culture in more vital ways than even my mentors Hauerwas, Yoder, Lindbeck, Chas Taylor had provided me. I saw swirling ideologies within U.S. culture taking over the church. We had no way to think about culture as a flow of ideologies. This led me to study ideology more closely (I got my intro to it at Northwestern University). And this led me to Slavoj Zizek. I’ve never really quit studying Zizek since. Among other things, Zizek illumined how my own church functioned as an ideology, the very opposite of a life together shaped into and from the fullness of Christ’s presence in the world through the Triune God’s sending the Son and the Spirit into the world via the incarnation. My opening salvo therefore was to compare evangelical church to an empty caffeine free Diet Coke. Today, almost four years later, I think it still holds. I think it’s been proven that we cannot overlay “missional” over the same scaffolding of evangelical church and expect it to change. Here’s the meat of that post below. I offer it again 3+ years after the publishing of that book. As always I welcome any comments as to where you’ve seen these dynamics in place in your own church lives.
Zizek narrates how Coca-Cola was originally concocted as a medicine (originally known as a nerve tonic, stimulant and headache remedy). It was eventually sweetened and its strange taste was made more palatable. Soon it became a popular drink during prohibition, replacing alcohol, with its medicinal stimulant qualities (it was deemed “refreshing” as well as the perfect “temperance drink”). Over time, however, its sugar was replaced with sweetener, its caffeine extracted, and so today we are left with Caffeine-Free Diet Coke: a drink that does not fulfil any of the original concrete needs of a drink. The two reasons why anyone would drink anything: it quenches thirst/provides nutrition and it tastes good, have in Zizek’s words “been suspended.”
Today, Coke has become a drink that does not quench thirst, does not provide any stimulant and whose strange taste is not particularly satisfying. Nonetheless, it is the most consumed beverage in the world. It plays on the mysterious enjoyment we get out of consuming it as something to enjoy in surplus after we have already quenched our thirst. We drink Coke because “Coke is “it”” not because it satisfies anything material. In essence, all that remains of what was once Coke is a pure semblance, an artificial promise of a substance which never materialized. In Zizek’s words, we ‘drink nothing in the guise of something …” It is “in effect merely an envelope of a void.”(22-23).
Zizek uses the caffeine free diet Coke as an illustration of how capitalism works. Taking some liberties with Zizek and his excellent illustration, I believe the Coke metaphor works for understanding some things about evangelicalism as well in the present period of its history. Many of evangelicalism’s beliefs and practices have become separated from the concrete reality around which they first came into being. In its beginnings, the inerrant Bible, the decision for Christ and the idea of the Christian Nation articulated beliefs for evangelicals that helped connect them to the realities of our life in Christ in the face of several cultural challenges. (these were the ways we thought about the authority of the Bible, conversion into salvation and the church’s activity in society). For fifty to seventy-five years, these articulations of what we believe served us well but also evolved and become hardened. As American society advanced, and our lives became busier and ordered towards American affluence, we practice these same beliefs but they have become disconnected from what they meant several generations ago. As a result, the inerrant Bible, the decision for Christ and the Christian Nation mean very little for how we live our day-to-day lives as evangelical Christians. They are ideological banners that we assent to. They are tied to behavioral practices that we engage in but they bear little or no connection to our lives in Christ for His Mission in the world. Just as our society drinks Coke as an “it,” as something that makes us feel good but has little substantial value as a drink, so we practice these beliefs as something we add on to our lives – not as something we need to live. It is something we do as an extra to our already busy lives that makes us feel better. Evangelical church, as symbolized in many ways by the large consumer mega churches, has become an “add-on,” “a semblance” of something which once meant something real. It is a surplus enjoyment we enjoy after we have secured all of our immediate needs.
Surely there are many evangelical churches of all sizes which do not fit this description, and God’s work continues among us despite our falleness. Yet as is typical of Zizek, his Coke illustration provokes us to ask questions about the things that drive us to come together. He describes in multiple ways what a politic looks like, when, like Caffeine-Free Diet Coke, it is “empty” at its core driven by forces other than what we accept as real. Zizek, of course, sees all social reality as ‘empty’ driven by antagonisms and contradictions as opposed to something real that we aspire to.
In the the End of Evangelicalism?, I wish to explore, with Zizek’s help, how evangelicalism in particular has become this kind of “empty politic” driven by other things than our life together in Christ for the world? In the face of its failings, ( and in response to Zizek) I offer an alternative politic for evangelicalism where our everyday way of life is once again centered (by these beliefs) into a participation in the Incarnate Christ and the life we have with God in and through the “Sent One.” If “the inerrant Bible,” “the decision for Christ” and “the Christian Nation” were formulations that were meant for good, years later they have malformed us for Mission. I offer an alternative which preserves the core. I show how each of three emphasies of evangelicalism – a high view of the authority of Scripture, a conversionist salvation and an activist church in the world – can be rearticulated and reoriented in practice so as to shape a people for hospitality, inclusion, authenticity, faithfulness and compassion among the lost and hurting. Although challenging, I contend Zizek provides the basis for a fresh look at evangelicalism along these lines in the midst of our political malaise.
What do you think? Is there some validity in this socio-political analysis of evangelicalism and what it has become in the twenty first century? Can you think of other ways evangelicalism is like a Caffeine Free Diet Coke?