Book Note: Slavoj Žižek’s “Heaven In Disorder”

Slavoj Žižek, Heaven in Disorder (New York: OR Books, 2021). (Amazon; OR Books)

I’ve started reading Žižek. But I started at the end with (what I believe is) his most recent book: Heaven in Disorder. According to a friend who is familiar with Žižek, this is one of his most readable and easy-to-understand books, so I think I made a good decision!

Mostly, it’s a collection of very short essays. Often, his essays are blog post size: three-four pages. There are a few longer essays but even those are less than twenty pages long.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is what ties together this collection. Žižek has a lot to say about American presidential politics as well, seeing that several essays reflect on the end of the previous administration and the election of Joe Biden.

As to the name of the book: Žižek talks about how “One of Mao Zedong’s best-known sayings is: ‘There is a great disorder under heaven; the situation is excellent.'” I don’t know if this refers to the Chinese view of the “mandate of heaven,” but that’s secondary to how Žižek uses it. He comments (p. 1), “Mao speaks about disorder under heaven, wherein ‘heaven’, or the big Other in whatever form—the inexorable logic of historical processes, the laws of social development—still exists and discreetly regulates social chaos. Today we should talk about heaven itself as being in disorder.” For Žižek this means that even the symbolic universes that held countries and cultures together are divided. The turmoil isn’t just “on the ground,” if you will but in the fact that “heaven is divided into two spheres” in a way that is similar to the Cold War, except that there’s one major difference (p. 2). He says, “The divisions of heaven today appear increasingly drawn within each particular country. In the United States, for instance, there is an ideological and political civil war between the alt-Right and the liberal-democratic establishment, while in the United Kingdom there are similarly deep divisions, as were recently expressed in the opposition between Brexiteers and anti-Brexiteers…Spaces for common ground are ever diminishing, mirroring the ongoing enclosure of physical public space, and this is happening at a time when multiple intersecting crises mean that global solidarity and international cooperation are more needed than ever.” (p. 2) In other words, the pandemic demanded global unity but even within nations, there’s no unity: “heaven” is torn in two.

It’s a great collection. It’s thought-provoking as always and easy to read, as my friend noted, and as I’m recognizing as I’ve dived into The Sublime Object of Ideology, which takes a lot more work!

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Notes on some recently read books

The school year has begun, so of course this blog has gone dormant. Sorry!

I do want to mention/recommend a few books I read as summer break was ending:

Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?
(Amazon; Bookshop)

I’m sure there are a million reviews of this book available already, so all I’m going to say is this: as a high school teacher who has a front row seat to the Hunger Games that is college admissions, I wish each of my students and their families would read this book. Sandel exposes the flaws of the meritocratic worldview: not only that it’s not real (the hardest workers don’t receive the best rewards) but also that it harms even the “winners”.

Jason Ananda Josephson Storm, Metamodernism: The Future of Theory (Amazon; Bookshop)

Storm is brave. He attempts to do something constructive in an era that is dominated by deconstruction. The main focus of the book is this (to oversimplify): how does the humanities move past postmodernism without denying postmodernity’s critiques and returning to modernistic thinking. This book could be a game changer when it comes to epistemology and it offers a new constructive approach to several topics that are desperately needed in the humanities since we’ve poisoned ourselves for a generation by telling everyone why our fields of study are flawed and not really real. For example, modernity sought a concrete definition of religion. Postmodernity helped us realize this is quixotic and that there’s no “form” of religion (to draw Plato and then Wittgenstein into the discussion). But something important still needs to be said about things like “religion,” even if it lacks concreteness. Storm offers a way forward.

Christine M. Korsgaard, Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to Other Animals (Amazon; Bookshop)

On Ash Sunday 2020, I became a vegetarian. I’ve been looking for a philosopher to give me words to help me think about this change because it’s not dietary as much as ethical as relates to how we treat animals and the environmental impact of animal consumption. Korsgaard’s attempt to ground animal ethics in a Kantian framework has a lot to offer. Her writing has begun to reshape my understanding of “the good,” how humans relate to other animals in our differences and similarities to other creatures; and why we humans shouldn’t think of ourselves as superior to other creatures. Yet, Korsgaard notes that what makes us different also makes us responsible and while she concludes things like vegetarianism is ethically ideal and that factory farming is deeply immoral, so also draws the readers into ongoing conversations about topics like breeding animals away from being predatory; whether we should have pets; whether we should leave all animals to be wild, among other topics. It’s the type of book I plan on reading again in the future.

Gen Z’s religiosity (or lack thereof)

The aforementioned PRRI “2020 Census of American Religion” continues to provoke a lot of thought and conversations. For example, the eyebrow raising stat that the white mainline is remaining static, or maybe even growing, while white evangelicalism plummets, is being questioned (e.g. Ryan Burge’s “Why It’s Unlikely U.S. Mainline Protestants Outnumber Evangelicals”). Also, the PRRI census seemed to indicate that the rise of the “nones” was slowing. Well, there’s other data out there like what Ryan Burge tweeted about Gen Z based on the data from the Cooperative Election Study.

The translation philosophy of the ESV; the “orthodoxy” of Trump

Bookmarking a couple of interesting, recently published journal articles (that happen to be free to read for anyone):

  1. Samuel L. Perry, “Whitewashing Evangelical Scripture: The Case of Slavery and Antisemitism in the English Standard Version,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion
  2. Gerardo Martí, “The Unexpected Orthodoxy of Donald J. Trump: White Evangelical Support for the 45th President of the United States,” Sociology of Religion.

Secularization and Social Change

Let me recommend a recent episode of Tripp Fuller’s “Homebrewed Christianity” podcast wherein he interviews/gives lecture space to Gerardo Marti, a professor of sociology at Davidson. This is such an excellent episode if you’re trying to understand a range of cultural shifts from defining secularization to the rise of the “nones” to declining church affiliation to white supremacy and evangelicalism to…well, a lot. I recommend!

Parenting, the Bible, and Faith-Transitions

My experience as a Religious Studies Instructor who teaches high schoolers, and conversations I’ve had with friends who are rethinking how they may or may not teach the Bible to their own children, led me to ponder whether some parts of the Bible are more appropriate for others depending on the age of a child. See “Rating the Bible”. Now I see Jared Byas of “The Bible for Normal People” fame has released a podcast episode titled “Parenting in a Faith Transition” with his wife, Sarah Byas, where they discuss this topic, so I thought I’d share but also document so that I remember it as I continue to think on this topic.

Recently read: Du Mez’s “Jesus and John Wayne”

Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright, 2020). (Amazon; Bookshop)

Wow! But also, duh!

Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne simultaneously made me say “wow!” as she articulated the development of an Evangelicalism centered on white patriarchy as the unifying doctrine and “duh!” as she made a wide-array of connections that seem so obvious in retrospect.

For anyone who sat shocked on the night of November 8th, 2016, as Donald J. Trump was elected as the next President of the United States, and for those wondered how the “Moral Majority,” “Family Values” Evangelicals could serve as the electoral engine who made that happen, there’s an answer—at least with regards to Evangelicalism’s obsession with rigidly hierarchical patriarchy, 1950s gender-roles, and macho masculinity. As someone who is what has been called an “Ex-Evangelical,” I was both shocked and completely unsurprised by the level of support Trump received from Evangelicals. (I know, sounds contradictory, but its a real experience.) When I left Evangelicalism, I had concluded that many of their Shibboleths—inerrancy, complementarianism, anti-LGBTQIA+ exclusion, Islamophobia, etc.—had little to do with a “plain reading of the Bible” (a ridiculous notion) but instead was an effort by some to retain cultural hegemony in an increasingly pluralistic American—a white, patriarchal hegemony at that. If Jesus is the Jesus of white Evangelicalism, then it’s easy to see how “Jesus” and Trump are compatible.

Du Mez puts all the loose stands together in one place. As she writes toward the end of the book,

Evangelicals hadn’t betrayed their values. Donald Trump was the culmination of their half-century-long pursuit of a militant Christian masculinity. He was the reincarnation of John Wayne, sitting tall in the saddle, a man who wasn’t afraid to resort to violence to bring order, who protected those he deemed worthy of protection, who wouldn’t let political correctness get in the way of saying what had to be said or the norms of democratic society keep him from doing what needed to be done.

Jesus and John Wayne, p. 271

While we’ve become accustom to Evangelicals claiming the moral high-ground, the reality is that Evangelicals have drunk deep from the wells of Dominionism as the real motivation for their thirst for power. Their Christian Nationalism is a patriarchal one—a white patriarchal one. In other words, Christianity means maintaining the status quo of white, male superiority and privilege with an American Jesus who is a muscular, patriotic man just like them.

As I said, Du Mez ties together the loose strands together showing how American views of masculinity, modeled by figures like John Wayne, informed the key orthodoxies of American Evangelicalism. Coalitions were built that could overlook different interpretations of predestination, baptism, etc., etc., as long as they could coalesce around a shared conviction that civilization—Christian civilization—demanded male headship and strength. Along the way, politicians like Ronald Reagan (more “masculine” than Jimmy Carter) and eventually Donald Trump became darlings to Evangelicals who were shaped by people like Chuck Colson, James Dobson, Mark Driscoll, John Eldredge, Jerry Falwell, Mel Gibson, Wayne Grudem, Tim LaHaye, Al Mohler, Oliver North, Paige Patterson, Doug Wilson, et al.

For those trying to make sense of recent developments in Evangelicalism ranging from the popularity Duck Dynasty and 19 Kids and Counting; to the collapse of Driscoll’s Mars Hill amidst a variety of abuse scandals, the downfall of Willow Creek’s Bill Hybels amidst a variety of sex scandals; to the rise of The Gospel Coalition as evidence that unity has hardly anything to do with traditional doctrines, there’s something new to learn. As I said, you’ll say “wow!’ and you’ll think to yourself “duh! this all makes so much sense”. For a succinct review of the book, see the Kirkus Review or listen to Du Mez’s NPR interview with Steve Inskeep, “‘Jesus and John Wayne’ Explores Christian Manhood—And How Belief Can Bolster Trump”. But more importantly, read this book if you want to make sense of modern, American Evangelicalism and its connection to Trumpism.