Camille K. Lewis, Independent Scholar
Abstract: When I published my 2001 dissertation through Baylor University Press, I had no idea that my then-employer Bob Jones University would consider it a threat. They would tolerate the book Romancing the Difference: Kenneth Burke, Bob Jones University, and the Rhetoric of Religious Fundamentalism as long as I dropped the final chapter. In that chapter I argued that while Burke's Augustine and BJU privilege a tragic mortification of the flesh, Scripture can express a robust, comic alternative. Their final ultimatum nonetheless forced my hand, and that chapter, too menacing to be published within the BJU cloister, is now available publicly.
IMAGINE THAT YOU ENTER A PARLOR. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.1 Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form
Sometimes, nonetheless, “putting in your oar” is risky. You listen, brood, answer, argue, defend, and align following the rules you inferred from preceding discussions, only to be told, however courteously, to shut up or get out. That, in a nutshell, is my story of publishing Romancing the Difference: Kenneth Burke, Bob Jones University, and the Rhetoric of Religious Fundamentalism. But I’ll give you the longer version too.
In 1999 while I was a Ph.D. student in Communication and Culture at Indiana University, I heard an audio recording of my alma mater and then-employer Bob Jones University’s Faculty In-service. A little phrase stuck out in Dean of Students Jim Berg’s talk: “we want to make them want what we have.” I was scrambling to come up with a metaphor to describe religious sectarian rhetoric, and that phrase explained it all as hinging on desire, not reason or even faith. So the metaphor of sectarian romance grew from there, ending with my dissertation defense in 2001.
To summarize my argument, I took Burke’s notions of tragedy and comedy very seriously, imagined their practical possibilities, and, then offered an additional term, foreshadowed but unimagined in Burke, in the vocabulary of romance. From the Federalist Papers to contemporary political theory, liberal democracy has always looked askance at religious zealotry. Political theory and religious histories provide few new vocabularies to theorize the religious separatists as part of the public sphere. Crafting a new vocabulary is essential since restricting our vision of public discourse by excluding sectarians would hinder democracy’s goals. Limiting one voice, no matter how annoying, opens the possibility to contain other defiant views. As critical scholars, we must craft ways to stretch our frames of acceptance to include even the most annoying voices. And Kenneth Burke’s notions of tragedy and comedy productively offer a meta-narrative for understanding this impulse to expunge the undesirable and for creating a critical alternative.
Burke’s notions of tragedy and comedy persist throughout his writing. While tragedy reaches for a beautiful ideal, comedy lampoons the ideal. While tragedy feels guilty for falling short of perfection, comedy juggles the cultural books so that a loss is translated into a win. While tragedy blames a scapegoat for cultural sin, comedy finds that sin in every human being. The Other in tragedy is irreconcilably evil, but in comedy the Other is simply mistaken.
Burke opens the door for theorists to include the sectarian in their discourse, but his tragedy and comedy dichotomy fails to adequately describe the religious sectarian. They seem to stand outside his vocabulary, acting neither tragically nor comically. Unlike tragedy, they are not goaded by the cultural ideals but embody them. They do not tragically offer themselves up as a sacrifice for the culture’s purification, but they use themselves as an example for the culture to follow.
Thus, I am arguing for a third frame of acceptance—romance. When “cornered,” as Burke described, the sectarian separates from the dominant culture, and that separation forces an entirely new rhetoric. The separation is never complete or permanent. They leave but never too far so that they guarantee the dominant culture’s attention. Neither tragically purifying nor comically correcting, the sectarian unequivocally and unalterably woos its Other. When tragedy kills and comedy critiques, the suitor charms. The evil enemy, which the comic transforms into a mistaken adversary, becomes a Beloved in the romantic’s sight. The cultural ideal that goads the tragic and tickles the comic, personifies the romantic. Romantic sectarians identify not through victimage or criticism but through wooing— irresistible beauty coupled with its Other outside the dominant frame.
To prove my case, I chose to analyze the texts in Bob Jones University’s histories, their art collection, their community outreaches, and their response within Campaign 2000. In their remembering, collecting, helping, and defending, Bob Jones University fully talks within a romantic motive. By separating, they have removed themselves from the dominant tragic cycle, and in the process have lost opportunity for impious comedy. In forming that argument, I always knew that my criticism both described how fundamentalists interacted with the secular world and prescribed a better, more comic way for them to act. For fundamentalists, separation is the primary doctrine (though unstated in their creeds), and surgically removing sectarianism from their ideology is impossible. So I tried to imagine a more strategic, even impious separation.
In 2001, my leave of absence ended, and I returned to my full-time position on the BJU Rhetoric and Public Address faculty. As is typical, no one beyond my committee and perhaps my immediate family actually read the dissertation and, to my knowledge, no one on the BJU administration or faculty.
When Marty Medhurst posted a call for manuscripts under Baylor University’s Studies in Rhetoric and Religion in 2005, the opportunity was irresistible. Few BJU faculty members publish outside the BJU’s own press, and even fewer publish book-length manuscripts in peer-reviewed academic venues. In the five years since my dissertation defense, however, much had changed in the fundamentalist landscape. Hardly any conservative evangelicals, if any, described themselves as “fundamentalists” anymore. That label was gone from local Greenville, South Carolina pulpits and even the BJU chapel platform. Bob Jones III even called for a new moniker and proposed “biblical preservationists” (which gained little traction). Virtually none of my students wanted anything to do with the “doctrine of separation” that had defined this micro-culture of conservative evangelicals for almost a century. From my vantage point, something had changed, and I didn’t think I could publish my 2001 dissertation without exploring that rhetorical shift.
The texts I included in my original analysis had to be (1) public and (2) focused on the external constituency. But after the media firestorm of Campaign 2000, BJU was silent. Yes, of course, they still had the same history presentations as before, and the Museum and Gallery still displayed its “finest collection of sacred art outside of the Vatican.” But community outreaches did diminish and political involvement on a national scale was forsaken. What had happened?
In my search for a new text that was public and external, I came up with only one—When Trouble Comes by the Dean of Students Jim Berg, the same speaker that had initially inspired me. Published through Bob Jones University Press, Berg had written the little gift book to comfort the survivors of 9/11.
It’s a strange book—far from comforting, full of contradictions, and not at all the Berg I thought I knew. Ironically, no one outside the BJU enclave would find any resonance in the text whatsoever. It is not at all “attractive” and certainly not even as potentially “romantic” as other public BJU texts.
When in 2000 I first proposed critiquing BJU rhetoric to my dissertation advisor, Robert Ivie, he chuckled and said, “Well, that’s grabbing the tiger by the tail, isn’t it?” If Ivie was right—if I was indeed grabbing the BJU tiger by the tail with the dissertation—in this final chapter I was reaching past the tail and right for his ruff in critiquing Jim Berg. I had no idea the stir the still-in-the-rough-draft-stage chapter would cause. I naively assumed that BJU’s pursuit of accreditation would mean that the faculty would be encouraged to publish and participate in the Academy. I honestly believed that when my former student Stephen Jones took the presidency after his more rancorous father Bob Jones III resigned, the school was entering a “kinder and gentler” stage of fundamentalism.
I was wrong.
When rumors of the chapter moved up the organizational chart, I was “strongly encouraged” in October 2006 to “reconsider” any publication pursuits. Knowing that publishing would be good for all concerned, I ignored what seemed to be ambiguous threats, and that December I signed the contract with Baylor. By the next February, the threats were a little less ambiguous, and I asked my fellow Ph.D. in rhetoric and BJU Executive Vice-President Gary Weier to read the whole manuscript. That was as high up the organization’s ladder as I could plead, and Gary was more than moderately familiar with rhetorical criticism and with Kenneth Burke.
He offered some helpful feedback about the document as a whole. But he said in no uncertain terms that if the final chapter about When Trouble Comes were published, I would be fired. “We can’t have faculty members critiquing an administrator’s theology.” But I wasn’t critiquing his theology, I responded; I was critiquing his rhetoric. “No one will see the difference.” So there it was—publish and perish.
Baylor University Press graciously accommodated my worried request to drop that chapter. We cobbled together a new conclusion, and the book went ahead nearly identical to the original 2001 dissertation version. I thought that I was done with the scrutiny and the stress and that my position was no longer in jeopardy.
But once again, I was wrong. Expunging the chapter from publication wasn’t enough. After a long series of meetings and document exchanges, on July 13, 2007, both my husband and I received an ultimatum from President Stephen Jones and Vice-President Gary Weier: “If you cannot hold your [theological] position without openly promoting it in spoken or written communication to colleagues, students, or others at a distance from the University, we would have to come to a parting of ways.”
The directive gave us two choices: capitulation or termination. We chose to resign. To be silent would be anti-intellectual and unethical. And what follows here is the chapter that was evidently too threatening to be published while still within the Bob Jones University cloister.
If I were to use the theory of romantic separatist rhetoric to describe this forced resignation, I would say that I was the friend who dared to talk about the debutante’s beauty treatments. The henna rinses, the tummy tucks, the tattooed eyeliner—things that were not natural but were desperate attempts to prop up a fading beauty. It is in retreating from the public sphere that these sectarians sound the most tragic. They made themselves and their own most-committed apologists into scapegoats.
In all those caffeinated and animated graduate school conversations—those that most resemble the Burkean parlor—we junior scholars would each wrangle with the inside-versus-outside personas. In other words, is critique best accomplished while inside the court by whispering in the king’s ear or outside the palace by bellowing to the world at large? Is Christine de Pisan more effective than Laura Cereta? Did Martin Luther King, Jr. win the day or Malcolm X (or did Malcolm perhaps make Martin more palatable)? In sum, should we be more sagacious than prophetic?
I always privileged the quiet insider critique of the Sage. But I now realize that the prescription I attempted in my dissertation was too subtle for romantic fundamentalists caught up in their own beauty. From my perspective, there was no difference between my voice in the initial five chapters and in this expunged chapter to follow. While I wrote the first part while away from my BJU “home” and the last chapter while working alongside my then-fellow fundamentalists, the central message was the same: we have to do this better.
Yet these religious sectarians misheard my critical whispers as sweet-nothings. While I was trying to alert them to the decaying chips in their front teeth, they only heard me saying how beautiful their smile was. When I got more pointed and prophet-like in the last chapter, they did finally begin to understand; but rather than change or even retort, they told me to shut up or get out. I was the one ruining their beautiful image, they assumed, not realizing that their visage was already marred.
BJU has so resisted criticism from inside and out for so long that they simply perceive private rebukes as compliments and public critiques as embittered jealousy. Any change they make is only pretense. So afraid of being vulnerable, their frames of acceptance have hardened and are chipping away. I would never say that comedy is impossible in the fundamentalist micro-culture, but their best chance to participate in, critique, or woo the culture they fetishize will remain outside their rhetorical piety as long as their frame is so recalcitrant as to exclude even sympathetic critique.
Fundamentalism has so narrowed and “splintered” (to use Burke’s description of Protestantism) that it cannot endure. I had a front-row seat for the passing of the mantle to the next generation—my generation—and observed that the movement’s founders did not provide the rhetorical flexibility necessary for healthy growth. The very same peers that told us that BJU needed us because we were “different” were the ones who showed us the door. Yet the parlor conversation continues still, and now with an outsider's perspective, I can more clearly imagine a productive criticism for sectarian rhetoric and religion.
Just Two Choices on the Shelf—Growing Grace or Killing Self
“Just two choices on the shelf—pleasing God and pleasing self.”2
Quoted in Jim Berg, Changed Into His Image
When the romantic is repeatedly thwarted and even publicly shunned, turning inward becomes natural. Grand galas, moonlight walks, and ambiguous flirtations no longer draw the attention. A new wardrobe, a change in hair color, teeth-whitening, and even plastic surgery are crucial. While the sectarian, like Burke’s euphemistic mystic, broods and retreats, the problem becomes not external, but fully internal. The scapegoat is now the self which must be completely and even extremely remodeled.
Much has changed at Bob Jones University since Campaign 2000. After years of resisting the external validation of accreditation, BJU is now accredited through the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. A new president and a new administration are at the helm. Now its students can apply for Title IV Federal Student Aid.
But the sectarian talk has changed too. BJU sounds less like a flirtatious romantic and more like an abandoned wallflower. While the presidential candidate that scorned them is now sounding and acting more like a Fundamentalist in his policies,3 these romantic sectarians sound less amorous. As a result, they leave the romantic rhetoric behind and internalize the tragedy. They take the conflict inward. They pull the carapace over their heads and makeover themselves.
Sometimes they step out from against the wall into the light when all seems friendly. After President George W. Bush’s second election, the still university president Bob Jones, III wrote a forthright and unembellished letter of congrats.4 He assumed a spiritual connection with the president. He identified with him as the same substance. “Because you seek the Lord daily, we who know the Lord will follow that kind of voice eagerly. . . . Nonetheless, we could not be more thankful that God has given you four more years to serve Him in the White House, never taking off your Christian faith and laying it aside as a man takes off a jacket, but living, speaking, and making decisions as one who knows the Bible to be eternally true.” Talking as if both are “insiders,” Jones hopes to make his loyalty and admiration as loud and as plain as any of the others. When it seems safe to join the chorus, the romantic might tip-toe out into plain view.
Yet assertive political involvement for these sectarians has been scarce since 2000. Their public discourse has turned more subtle and even more internal. The principal expression of sectarian romance has been a response to the national tragedy of September 11th. At that point, they ducked away from their wall to offer not just their condolences, and not a national rebuke,5 but a glimpse at their perfected selves. The gift book, When Trouble Comes, was dedicated to those who lost loved ones on 9/11 and was distributed among New York City rescue workers. In seeming to reach out to the hurting, its author and BJU Dean of Students, Jim Berg, subtly articulates the spurned romantic’s response after rejection. Coupled with Berg’s larger work written for sectarians, Changed Into His Image, we see a re-statement of the long-time expected sectarian response that looks less romantic and more simply tragic.
In Rhetoric of Religion, Kenneth Burke anticipates Berg’s tragedy when he reads Augustine’s Confessions and Genesis. But even Burke’s noble attempt to articulate comedy, as we have seen throughout this book, proves appetizing but not entirely satisfying. His precipice metaphor leaves us fearful. His “at the last moment” timing leaves us rushed. Other authors, Walter Wink and Jim Wallis, imagine a more robust comedy than Burke ever could, and their articulation of that frame of acceptance within Christianity could also resolve the untenable stress for the romantic sectarian. The purpose of this chapter is to identify and map the trajectory of mortification through Burke and Berg in order to theorize the most robust comedy for secularists and sectarians alike. I argue that the tragic mortification of the flesh that runs rampant from Burke’s Augustine through Berg is not endemic to Christianity, as Burke might say. Instead the Christian sacred Text can express a comic cultivation that is a more robust alternative. For both the sectarian and the rhetorical theorist, in resisting the unfit choice of a tragic mortification, they must choose a more comedic cultivation. Instead of killing the self, they must grow grace.
Tragedy as Mortification: Kenneth Burke and his Rhetoric of Religion
In religion, and specifically the Christian religion, Burke finds a robust rhetoric. He frames it as a representative anecdote of the most creative and the most persuasive and the most “rounded-out.” “Since the theological use of language is thorough, the close study of theology and its forms will provide us with good insight into the nature of language itself as a motive.”6 His purpose is to glean strategies for rhetoric from theology. That purpose is wholly secular, interdisciplinary, and practical.7 If theologians can so effectively explain the Infinite to the finite, then perhaps we who study words and wordlings can find some clues for creating our own well-rounded rhetoric.8So his study of theology is a kind of undergraduate requirement in foreign language: to better understand how we talk, we should study how others talk. He is looking, then, for “fruitful analogies between the two realms” of theology and logology.9
In comparing the notion of a “word” to “The Word” (Logos), Burke discovers a playful exchange between the natural world and the supernatural world, the secular and the sacred. Even the assumed material divide between the natural and supernatural is casuistic, at most, or even non-existent for Burke. Sounding as much like a Christian Scientist as ever, 10 Burke assumes that “the realm of symbolism can effect the sheer motions of a physical body, as manifested by a turn from health to grave illness on the part of a body swayed by symbolism. Similarly, ideas can buoy us up, hence the market for tracts on ‘the power of positive thinking.’”11 Words work, and, perhaps, natural words with spiritual underpinnings might even work better.
This borrowing is not simply linear or bottom-up; it can be circular or top-down. Since theologians must borrow words for the supernatural from the natural, rhetoricians “can borrow back the terms from the borrower, again secularizing to varying degrees the originally secular terms that had been given ‘supernatural’ connotations.”12
Even clothing carries this elastic symbolism. He cites that priestly garb were once purely secular attire that gradually developed into a simple religious ritual. “Thus, along with historical trends whereby religious modes become secularized, . . . there is also the contrary trend whereby symbols that begin secularly can gradually become ‘set apart’ through the development of a religious tradition. Accordingly, the relation between theology and logology should not be conceived simply as proceeding in one direction.”13 In other words, we can quilt our rhetoric forwards or backwards. No linguistic project is whole cloth; it is a piecing together of scraps or fragments from aged pajamas, worn dresses, and well-loved shirts. This quilting can proceed from scrap heap to finished project or back again.
So Burke wants to quilt and un-quilt and re-quilt with his words, admiring the religious pattern as his model. He begins with Augustine’s Confessions and Genesis and finds a tragic drama persisting throughout both and, thus, throughout Christianity and Western culture. From the natural world, Augustine lifts the term “death” and creates the notion of a spiritual death within theology. This “mortification” or self-death is fundamental to the drama that Burke interprets in Augustine: Augustine as a believer purifies himself through mortification in order to achieve salvation or oneness with God.
Like Christ, the archetypal sacrifice, Augustine must also sacrifice albeit continuously. “The principle of such mortification would be completely in the idea of Christ as perfect victim, whose sacrifice is curative absolutely quite as the nature of mortification is curative partially.”14 Christ is either an independent model to guide Augustine’s own sacrifice or, Burke elaborates, an “ambiguously middle term” between the human and the divine.15 Christ is one of many tools to connect the believer to the divine or an exemplar of real, final sacrifice.
Because Augustine’s own sacrifice is never complete, it must persist. The tragedy around mortification never ceases, so Augustine purges his sin daily by “the deliberate slaying of appetites and ambitions.”16 Even simple obedience, Burke concludes, is a kind of mortification. “Obedience says no to the self from within.”17 In actively subduing his compulsion for “the pleasurable things of this world,” Augustine maintains order and achieves God Himself.
Therefore, in tragedy, either we sacrifice homicidally or suicidally, either we scapegoat or mortify. 18 Sacrifice is implicit; whom we sacrifice varies. Homicide gets messy, but suicide may seem more tidy, private, and quiet though solipsistic. Burke, too, critiques mortification (death to self) as “weaker” and “more ‘philosophic’” than natural death. That is, mortification is more flexible and intangible. Homicide like natural death is too final, but mortification is ambiguous and ongoing.
However, both the conclusion of the tragic drama and its cast are ambiguous and imprecise. Notice the drama’s coherence. Augustine as agent is also Augustine as scene. The distinction between the two is perpetually muddled. At best, the agent is divided: between his soul and his body, between his spirit and his self, between the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. At worst, upon subduing the self, Augustine as agent is never confident that he is not actually indulging the self. Actual suicide is selfish; but ongoing mortification—abstracted suicide—is unselfish. He must be passive, but in mortifying he may not be sufficiently passive.
Thus within Augustine’s drama, Burke’s action-versus-motion dichotomy comes to the forefront. Augustine’s motion of mortification may be more the action of indulgence, but he is never sure. Rarely would Burke’s Augustine actively sacrifice. Instead, he moves by mortification. He subdues the self without physically killing the self. A resolution would dramatize Augustine as agent alone and never as scene. He could act and not merely move. He would act and be acted upon.
Moving from Augustine to Genesis, Burke continues to extrapolate from the internal and theological to the external and secular. Within his word game between self-death and natural death, Burke spirals his logologic to include external deaths in relationship to God and the Government. In both Augustine’s personal confessions and Genesis’s global story, Burke finds the same machinations of words and wordlings. The notion of Covenant for Burke broadens the death-cum-mortification to a kind of social death.
In Genesis, both Creation and Covenant imply an obligation to a sovereign divinity or an order, according to Burke, and as such the possibility of disorder.19 At Creation, we see the ideal socio-political order. 20 And in the Covenant, Burke discerns the makings of tragedy since a Covenant contains the “principles of both temptation (on the part of one who might break the Covenant) and ‘repayment’ (or ‘redemption’) insofar as the aggrieved party is willing to impose and accept a fine or forfeit.”21 With that ominous threat of external punishment, a Covenant controls and, thus, requires internal mortification.22
In reading Genesis 2:7’s “And the Lord God formed man [of] the dust of the ground,” Burke gets tickled at the imagery. From the dust humanity was created and back to the dust must it go for salvation. “Here would be an imagistic way of saying that man in his physical nature is essentially but earth, the sort of thing a body becomes when it decays; or that man is first of all but earth, as regards his place in the sheerly natural order.” As with rhetorical quilting forward and backward, so humanity may be created forward by God or backward by itself. We are all just scraps held together by mere thready words. The peril of “dust to dust” looms large although ambiguously.23
Maintaining our dust-threatened selves, like for Augustine, depends upon self-sacrifice. So important is the notion of mortification to the drama of redemptive sacrifice (and the success of the Covenant) that Burke is compelled to see how guilt turns to mortification, or how the notion of sin transforms into the penalty of death. Back and forth between the natural and the social, Burke continues his logological massage: “Then, instead of saying that ‘conscience-laden repression is like death,’ we turn the equation into a quasi-temporal sequence, saying that death ‘comes from’ sin.” Surely sin is one and the same with death.24 Gradually “the idea of natural death becomes infused with the idea of moral mortification, whereas you had begun by borrowing the idea of physical death as a term for naming the mental condition which seemed analogous to it.”25
Thus, the Covenant is the “Grand Rounding Out” where two opposing tensions are defined, addressed, and directed. With two poles, the frame of acceptance is strong enough to weather resistance.26 From Genesis, Burke identifies both king and servant (agent), both sovereignty and subjection (act), both reward and punishment (agency), all leading to atonement (purpose). What Augustine describes personally, Genesis describes for a nation. What Augustine enacts for himself and to himself, a Covenant executes for a people. Both strive for order, both presume a falling away, and both insist upon a kind of death in order to achieve unity.
Like Augustine’s ambiguous tragedy of mortification, Burke finds a similar muddling in Genesis’s distinction between “actual” sin (action) and “original” sin (motion). The former is wholly an individual’s, while the latter is simply the sin “in principle” that humanity “inherited” “from our ‘first’ ancestor in the male line, as the result of his ‘first’ disobedience to the ‘first’ thou-shalt-not imposed upon him by the first and foremost authority (to whom he was subject, but from whom he inherited dominion over all created things, including his woman).”27
This perpetual tension highlights the tragedy that guilt can only be “processed” and never “resolved.” To “resolve” it, Burke asserts, would be “the end of tragedy—that is to say, the end of the sacrificial principle, the end of ‘mortification’ in all its forms, including the comic.” 28Tragedy itself is in a kind of catch-22 in which its only resolution would be its demise.
Another irresolvable dilemma Burke finds in Genesis is the notion of grace. For Burke, grace seems to be the perpetual stone in our shoe that stops us from sin, the Iago to our Othello, the devil on the shoulder, the dark yin to the positive yang. While the “principle . . . of mortification first prevails, . . . the notion of ‘grace’ itself (as a way of goading the sluggish Imagination to the proper fears) is extended to include the idea that natural calamities are ‘acts of God,’ designed to warn or chasten.”29 So grace is the counter-agent in the drama that needles those in the covenant to maintain the covenant. It may be annoying like a gadfly, sinister like a villain, contrary like our conscience, or threatening like karma.
But later Burke sees grace as a badge of honor. He reads Genesis as saying that if you persevered, it was by God’s grace. If you languished, it was by a lack of God’s grace:
Any nonbeliever who was converted proved thereby that he had been granted the grace to believe, and thus to carry out the works that would merit his salvation, though the grace to believe was given him without his merit, and he could persevere only insofar as God, by turning towards him, gave him the grace to persevere in the ways of his faith. If he later became a backslider, this turn on his part would be evidence that God, before all time, had had the foreknowledge that at this stage the man would be left on his own, and so would end by ‘voluntarily’ enrolling himself among the reprobates, as God knew all along he would.30
Burke relishes the persuasive qualities to this quagmire. To quit is to prove God’s disfavor. To persist is to prove His grace! This idea “was perfectly designed to ‘encourage’ the believer into persevering, and thus into doing all within his power to silence doubts (which, by their nature as doubts, would be a sign that God was turning away from him).”31
The separatist, to Burke, is especially plumbed for mortification. Whether the Jewish remnant or the priesthood, those “special persons set apart” are “set apart for sacrifice.” Whether maintaining a relationship with God in spite of “backsliding” fellows or struggling to be “fit” for a calling, mortification or more governance is the name of the game.32 The best mortifiers, then, are the liminal ones. They are the most obedient, most subjected, most ready to be sacrificed. While Burke’s Augustine was never sure that he was truly purified by mortification, in the same way the covenanted are never sure that they are in the contract. Grace is either a counter-agent that taunts us away from certain death or a blue-ribbon prize that proves our unity with God.
When theorizing grace into logology, Burke imagines that grace “stands” with “free-will” “at the watershed between the slopes of ‘Order’ and ‘Disorder.’”33 Like Augustine’s Christ as the undistributed middle term, grace, too, negotiates between opposing realms. Both are ambiguously poised between two disparate realms. Both goad us toward our better selves. So rhetorically, grace is “in the ability of language to name things correctly for our purposes. But such accuracy of naming is sometimes ‘withheld’ from us by the nature of things, or by the complexity of the problem, etc.”34
But tragedy does not end between God and humanity. Burke continues his logological spiral and pushes the notion of Covenant to the socio-political realm. Just like the ecclesiastical vestments were borrowed from the secular and so could be loaned back to the secular, so the notion of natural death to spiritual mortification can be used for the socio-political realm.
Socio-political order leads to repression with accompanying biological effects that resemble death. Death is borrowed from the natural order; but its “feeling” or “meaning” is a response to the socio-political order. He connects back to the logological since we mortify in Governance not by a natural death, but by toil and subjection to Power.35 Mortification is in the theological realm what capital punishment is in the socio-political realm. Neither is totally redemptive, and that tenuous conclusion “completes the pattern of Order: the symmetry of the socio-political (cum verbal), the natural, and the supernatural.”36
In sum, Augustine is personal, Genesis is national, and the Government is political. While Augustine purifies through mortification, the Covenant controls through reward and punishment, and the Government rules through capital punishment. All three muddle the agent and scene. All three punish themselves—whether covenanted or citizen. And all three are unsure of their liberty through Christ, grace, or rhetoric, and so piously perpetuate tragedy.
And in all his efforts, Burke does little to make ongoing comedy a possibility. As this entire study has demonstrated, Burke’s enacting of comedy is unsatisfying, incomplete, and confusing. It is too temporary, too insecure, and too impractical. Burke insists that the salvation for tragedy is comedy, but he can only posit it as a brief, tenuous last-minute pivot away from certain doom. Just like The Merchant of Venice turns comedic (or Romeo and Juliet turns tragic), in the last dramatic moments so rhetorical tragedies turn comedic only briefly and only tentatively or “within the last few moments of the last act.”37
From Burke’s criticism and from secondary sources, his vision of the tragic is often painted as teetering on the edge of a “precipice.”38 This metaphor is frighteningly precarious. There is little chance to “dance,”39 “stretch,”40 or “play”41 this close to the edge. As this study of imagining the possibilities of comedy has illustrated, Burke leaves us wanting more than shadows in his vision of comedic solutions. What political change can a distracting mime on the steps of a museum perform? How can an antinomian artist push us more decidedly toward the good life? After cultural surgery, what life-long therapy can creative allopaths prescribe? And in their comedy act, what moral can impious jugglers teach? If a stone in the shoe is all that will keep us from certain doom, how practical can we be?
Comedy as Cultivation: Walter Wink and Jim Wallis as Correctives
Identifying and countering tragedy is not Burke’s project alone.42 Liberation theologian Walter Wink sounds very Burkean in his analysis of global tragedies, but his framing of the solution is much more comedic than even Burke imagined it could be. If Burke seeks a well-rounded rhetoric in theology, the most comic example might be from sources like Wink.
Wink accounts for Burke’s take on Scripture and calls it the “Spiritualist Worldview.” In this perspective, because all things spiritual are good and all things material are bad, the present world incarcerates spirits from their free, purely spiritual existence. Religion’s goal, then, is to liberate the spirit from the flesh. Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and Neo-Platonism all have roots in this spiritualist point of view. In sum, the spiritualist worldview is embodied in those religions “that place all the emphasis on getting to heaven when one leaves this ‘vale of tears.’”43 The spiritualist prays not for health or for progress, but only for release “from the cloying garment of flesh and restoration to the spiritual world of the Beyond.” Denying pleasure in all forms is typical as is an emphasis on citizenship in Heaven as superior to good citizenry on Earth.44 “I’ll Fly Away” is the spiritualist hymn. That Burke, who most sympathized with Christian Science, would find such spiritualist resonance with Augustine and then “discover” it in Genesis is, then, no surprise. Burke, too, is shaped by the “Spiritualist Worldview,” seeing the abstract and cerebral as more real than the material.
What Burke calls the inevitability of tragedy, Wink calls a myth—specifically “the Myth of Redemptive Violence.” Wink describes this story as “enshrin[ing] the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right.” The myth’s power, according to Wink, is in its transparency. It seems to be natural, unavoidable, sacred, and complete.45
While Burke locates the archetype for tragedy in Christianity, Wink finds it in earlier, mythological sources, specifically the Babylonian story of Tiamat and Marduk. Creation itself is brutal, order comes from disorder, and evil anticipates good. Violence is unquestioned, “a primordial fact.” The consequences are plain. Humanity is birthed from blood. Murder is our raison d’être. “Humanity is not the originator of evil, but merely finds evil already present and perpetuates it. Our origins are divine, to be sure, since we are made from a god, but from the blood of an assassinated god. We are the outcomes of deicide.”46
Because violence is inevitable and genetic, peace is impossible. Order can only come from the top-down. First-time obedience is the noblest practice, and maintaining order is religion’s highest virtue. “The tasks of humanity are to till the soil, to produce foods for sacrifice to the gods (represented by the king and the priestly caste), to build the sacred city of Babylon, and to fight, and, if necessary, die in the king’s wars.”47 Like Burke’s final pivot away from the precipice of victimage, Wink’s portrayal of this Myth puts the crisis and resolution, too, “at the last moment.”48 Just like Hitler who corrupted the best for the worst,49 so “the myth of redemptive violence thus uses the traditions, rites, customs, and symbols of Christianity to enhance both the power of a select wealthy minority and the goals of the nation narrowly defined.”50
Thus, in the Myth of Redemptive Violence, brutality is the means of maintaining order. Wink even calls it the “original religion of the status quo.” To be pious, in other words, we must be violent. Conquering is the highest value. Might makes right. Religion must reinforce hierarchies. “Peace through war; security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion, and they form the solid bedrock on which the Domination System is founded in every society.”51
Even in the innocuous and ever-present cartoons, video games, and comic books, Wink finds the same story: the hero is indefatigable. He “suffers grievously and appears hopelessly doomed, until, miraculously, the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain, and restores order until the next episode.”52 And a certain fulfillment in projecting our repressed emotions onto the story’s antagonist keeps us coming back for more. “The villain’s punishment provides catharsis; one forswears the villain’s ways and heaps condemnation on him in a guilt-free orgy of aggression. Salvation is found through identification with the hero.”53 Violence becomes satisfying, compelling, and amusing.54
Twentieth-century politics updated the ancient story. The Cold War was our own ongoing comic book drama of redemptive violence.55 “The Myth of Redemptive Violence is, in short, nationalism become absolute.” The Myth seems divine and sovereign. It pirates the rhetoric of Christianity and stiffens against change. God becomes provincial. Our politics become a fortress. Mercy gives way to triumph. “It is blasphemous. It is idolatrous. It is immensely popular.” 56
Wink’s Myth exactly parallels Burke’s tragedy. Both are founded on violence. Both crave order. Both have blameless heroes and purely evil villains with whom we can identify and divide. Both seem religious, natural, and inevitable. Both frustrate peace. Sadistic, systematic, pious, and jingoistic—both tragedies are uncannily familiar.
Though Burke and Wink are identifying the same compulsion in humanity, they each use widely divergent sources. Wink is clear that this Myth of Redemptive Violence is not from Scripture. Like Burke, he, too, reads the first chapters of Genesis. But unlike Burke, he sees the Creation story as “diametrically opposed” to the notion of redemptive violence. In Genesis, good creates good and exists prior to evil. Neither violence nor evil is in the equation. Instead humanity’s “free decisions” damage a good thing. 57
In the Old Testament, Wink finds the same scapegoating mechanism as Burke but identifies God with its victims, not the conquerors. And in the New Testament, “an entire collection of books written from the point of view of the victims” so that “the scapegoat mechanism is fully exposed and revoked.”58
That the ultimate Victim, Christ, is painstakingly portrayed as innocent, Wink argues, undercuts the scapegoating mechanism, rather than reinforces the cycle as Burke argues.59 But the early church, too overwhelmed at the revelation that scapegoating was always counterfeit, reified the tragedy rather than overturning it. Since God, in Paul’s epistles, is a tender parent and not a severe judge, “Christ’s sacrifice doesn’t appease us to God, it sets us free to run to God.”60 While the early church emphasized the God of wrath, Paul describes a God of mercy. The former’s divinity is violent and exacting; the latter is peaceful and merciful. Even the Mass itself is a continuous sacrifice—a re-crucifying of Christ—not a reminder of the end of sacrifice.61 So, to Wink, the Holy Writ offers a solution to tragedy, not its reification. Any rehearsing of tragedy is a human problem, not a divine mandate. Even Wink’s calling the same drama of tragedy, a “myth” distances it from naturalizing and underscores its merely created status.
And Wink’s resolution of the Myth of Redemptive Violence is quite familiar to Burkeans as well: “ownership of one’s own evil and acknowledgement of God in the enemy.”62 What Wink calls “Jesus’ Third Way,” Burkeans remember as comedy. Both laugh, juggle, amplify, and stretch. Both flip a coin and declare “heads I win, and tails you lose.” Both are distracting mimes, antinomian artists, creative allopaths, and impious jugglers. But what Burke imagines as temporary, Wink assumes is enduring. What Burke imagines as tenuous, Wink assumes is secure. What Burke can never really describe practically, Jim Wallis in God’s Politics: How the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It illustrates dynamically.
From the Sermon on the Mount, Wink articulates an ongoing Burkean comedy. Wink’s plan even uses the same comedic metaphors as Burke’s: “find a third way, a way that is neither submission nor assault, flight nor fight, a way that can secure your human dignity and begin to change the power equation, even now, before the revolution . . . break the cycle of humiliation with humor and even ridicule, exposing the injustice of the system.”63 We resist the restrictions in a “third” way—neither directly countering them nor revolutionizing them. We confuse, befuddle, and heckle.
In other words, when we confront evil, Wink urges, we must resist confronting it “on its own terms.” The Other cannot not determine our resistance. We must “transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way, one that is at once assertive and yet nonviolent.” He cites Christ’s command that His followers “‘do not repay evil for evil.’”64 Creativity is the key. Improvisation is the rule of thumb. Anything to “keep the opponent off balance” is encouraged.65 This impiety stops the pious tragic cycle or what Wink calls the “outer spiral of retaliation.”66
Unlike Burke’s Augustine, salvation or oneness with God is not the goal in Wink’s drama since that occurred at redemption. Stopping evil is Wink’s goal. “Christians do not live nonviolently in order to be saved, or in order to live up to an absolute ethical norm, but because we want to end the Domination System. . . . It is the way God has chosen to overthrow evil in the world. And the same God who calls us to nonviolence gives us the power to carry it out.”67 While God is the goal in Augustine’s drama, the believer and God are co-agents in God’s ongoing work to end the Domination System. Neither the believer nor God Himself is passive. Wink’s view of prayer puts the believer fully in the driver’s seat with God.68
Wink’s strategy finds resonance not only with Burke, but also with our romantic sectarians. And by describing the “counter-agent” or antagonist as simply witless or lonely with our flaws evident in them too, Wink sounds quite romantic. “As we begin to acknowledge our own inner shadow, we become more tolerant of the shadow in others. As we begin to love the enemy within, we develop the compassion we need to love the enemy without.”69 “Love” is the key. Loving the Other is no different from loving the self. If God loves us, why would not God love the Other. Tragedy or the “Myth” poses the opposite question and leaves a menacing suspicion about our own parentage: if God is aggressive to the Other, why not us too?70 We can never be secure in the Myth. But knowing that our enemy is very much like ourselves, Wink asserts, makes us secure in our own standing. That God loves us and our Others allows us to act in confidence. There is no precipice or concern since a sovereign works alongside the believer in the drama.
This strategy of love from the Sermon on the Mount reveals God’s perfection. Being perfect like God is perfect means to love others as God does. We should be “embracing everyone.”71 When we come to terms with the things in our Others that needle us and drive us toward tragedy, when we “come to terms with our shadow,” we see ourselves in our enemies. We turn them into adversaries.72 And thus, “‘We have to love them into changing.’”73
If God can forgive, redeem, and transform me, I must also believe that God can work such wonders with anyone. Love of enemies is seeing one’s oppressors through the prism of the reign of God—not only as they now are but also what they can become: transformed by the power of God.74
“Separation” in order to purify has no place in Wink’s interpretation. He interprets Christ as saying that believers are defiled internally not externally. Cleanliness is not closer to godliness; loving the castaway is. “Rules of ritual purity” simply reinforce propriety and hierarchy. “Without purity regulations, there would be a crisis of distinctions in which everyone, and everything, was the same: women equal to men, outsiders equal to insiders, the sacred no different from the profane.”75
But Wink posits his actor as healthy and disease-resistant. The believer need not be inoculated against sinners. It is holiness that is communicable, not sinfulness! “The physician is not overcome by those who are ill, but rather overcomes their illness. . . . Holiness, he saw, was not something to be protected; rather it was God’s miraculous power of transformation. God’s holiness cannot be soiled; rather it is a cleansing and healing agent.”76 In sum, the believer need have no unsettling fear of disease or anxious worries about tumbling down the precipice. Since God works with the believer to foreground good through grace, the believer may confidently dance, stretch, and play.
Inspiring and conceiving is Wink’s goal; to see a Burkean/Winkian comedy in action, however, Jim Wallis satisfies the need in his latest call to action, God’s Politics: How the Right Gets it Wrong and Left Doesn’t Get It. He capitalizes on Lincoln’s urging Americans to “pray and worry earnestly whether we are on God’s side.”77 What Burke wishes and Wink theorizes Wallis constructs in contemporary politics. Wallis’s version of tragedy occurs when we assume that God is on our side, thus, creating the worst politics: “triumphalism, self-righteousness, bad theology, and, often, dangerous foreign policy.” That is, when we assume that God is doing our work we are the worst citizens. But asking if we our on God’s side—checking to see if we truly are working with God as Wink would frame it—engenders a modest comedy: “penitence and even repentance, humility, reflection, and even accountability.”78 In sum, Wallis wants to envision how contemporary Christians can enact Micah 6:8’s charge to “‘do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.’”79
Wallis describes a politically impious position. He actively resists partisan politics, tired left-right divisions, or any conventional ideologies. “Faith must be free to challenge both right and left from a consistent moral ground.”80 Leaning neither right nor left, never voting always Republican or Democrat or Libertarian keeps the pundits, politicians, and critics hopping—a posture Wallis wants to encourage.
Wallis resists both religious and secular Fundamentalism’s recalcitrance. He takes everyone to task. The former is too theocratic, and the latter is too theophobic.81 The former uses God as a weapon, and the latter sees God as a bane. The former wants God not just public but required, and the latter wants God as only private. “Conventional wisdom suggests that the antidote to religious Fundamentalism is more secularism. But that is a very big mistake. The best response to bad religion is better religion, not secularism.”82 By taking religion more seriously than the religious Fundamentalists and by taking politics more seriously than the secular fundamentalists, Wallis’s readers can forge new strategies for real change.
Like Wink, he calls his alternative trans-partisanship, divine. Wink’s “Jesus’ Third Way” is Wallis’s God’s Politics. While Wink reads the political in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, Wallis relishes the ancient Hebrew prophets to the point of naming his politics “prophetic.”
Prophetic politics finds its center in fundamental “moral issues” such as children, diversity, family, community, citizenship, and ethics (others could be added such as nonviolence, tolerance, fairness, etc.) and tries to construct national directions to which many people across the political spectrum could agree. Our own ancient prophetic religious traditions could offer a way forward beyond our polarized and paralyzed national politics and be the foundation for a fourth political option to provide the new ideas politics always needs.83
That God’s Politics is politically ambiguous, antinomian, and liminal is a new framing. It is neither simply pro-life nor merely pro-marriage. Wallis is juggling the god-terms. He is quilting together sackcloth with oxford, horsehair with gabardine. His call to action is resonantly Burkean: “Change the wind, transform the debate, recast the discussion, alter the context in which political decisions are being made, and you will change the outcomes. Move the conversation around crucial issues to a whole new place, and you will open up possibilities for change never dreamed of before.”84 Changing, transforming, recasting, and altering the talk is doing real political work. Moving to new topoi stretches the frames of acceptance to creatively include previously unimaginable alternatives.
Believing in the same power that Wink and Wallis find in Holy Writ is not the point. In other words, their model is not for Christians alone. Like Burke, we can find a robust rhetoric in theology, and Wink’s theological comedy and Wallis’s political comedy do more than Burke theorized. We can quilt backwards like Burke originally proposed. We can take fat quarters from Wink’s tweed jacket and Wallis’s twill khakis and stitch them to pieces of Burke’s tie-dyed shirt. And because of Wink and Wallis, we can even quilt in the romantic’s taffeta gown. In other words, their talk can identify with the romantic sectarian as well. Wink does more than just distract us from tragic memorializing; he builds an Ebenezer,85 dynamically identifying divine help while moving along a journey. Wink does more than play a single tune to get the rats out of town; he composes an entire hymnology relishing the permanent hospitality in residing with God. Wink does more than offer an allopathic cure of opposites; he enjoys a persistent resistance to disease that makes him bold and confident. And Wallis does more than tinker with ideological boundaries; he plows entirely new plots of land and declares them God’s. Building, composing, enjoying, and plowing—this rhetoric of cultivation is enduringly comic. Rather than Augustine’s and even Burke’s tragic mortification as permanent, haunting, and inevitable, Wink and Wallis juggle the assumptions and describe a comedy that itself is productive—for the secular Other and the sectarian, for the scholar and the believer.
Religion as Mortification: Jim Berg’s Tragic Project
The need for foregrounding Wink and Wallis’s Christian romantic comedy is imperative for the reluctant romantic after Campaign 2000. Their articulation of a Burkean comedy as endemic to Christian theology is the rhetorical makeover needed for the romantic’s future. While these fundamentalists turn more introverted, scapegoating themselves and retreating from the public sphere, a comic drama of cultivation can aptly counter their tragic drama of mortification, while keeping their beauty intact.
After 9/11, while the nation was rallying to heal, the shrinking romantics tip-toed away from their wallflower pose to add their homage. Fundamentalist counselor and BJU Dean of Students, Jim Berg, published When Trouble Comes through the Bob Jones University Press and dedicated it to those who lost loved ones on 9/11. His home church also gathered and sent up teams to distribute the gift book among the New York City 9/11 rescue workers. So When Trouble Comes (WTC) is the most organized attempt at wooing the secular Other after the disappointment of Campaign 2000. Berg’s book, however, seems less a reaching-out than a searching-within. Rather than a quick primp in front of the mirror, Berg portrays a continuous and even extreme makeover to preserve God’s favor. WTC is more like Augustine’s mortification, and, in the end, Berg sounds very much like Burke.
Although the direct lineage of Jim Berg’s mortification drama can be traced back to the early Christians, uncovering its Anglo-American roots reveals all its genetic permutations. While Wink traces the “spiritualist worldview” back to the Gnostics and the early church and while Burke finds Augustine insisting on mortification for salvation, the contemporary instantiation of this spirit-versus-body battle is rooted deeply in contemporary Anglo-American evangelism.
Historian George Marsden traces this Gnoticism through Dwight L. Moody to a camp from the nineteenth century in Keswick, England. Moody visited there before his famous British revivals, and its expression of Christianity resonated with him and contributed to his success in the British revivals in 1873–1875. When Moody returned to the United Sates for his American revivals, he had already digested this Keswick doctrine and became its chief American importer. Contemporary examples of Keswick come from the motto “Let go and let God,” the song “Oh, to be Nothing,” the organization “Campus Crusade,” or the evangelistic plea for continuous consecrations, “the victorious life,” or “second blessings.”
Marsden explains the conflicted cobbling together that Keswick theology attempts. Keswickian proponents try to negotiate among a Calvinist “total depravity,” a Wesleyan “eradication” or “perfection,” and a Pentecostal “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” “As long as Christ dwelt in the heart a Christian could be free from committing any known sin. There was therefore no excuse for tolerating any known vice, appetite, or sinful habit.”86 Their popular metaphor is that the “sinful nature is like an uninflated balloon with a cart (the weight of sin) attached. Christ fills the balloon and the resulting buoyancy overcomes the natural gravity of our sin. While Christ fills our lives we do not have a tendency to sin, yet we still are liable to sin. Were we to let Christ out of our lives, sin would immediately take over.”87 While D. L. Moody popularized it, Cyrus Scofield (the dispensationalist author whose Bible notes Burke references to understand Genesis) and Henry A. Ironside documented Keswick theology. And Charles Trumball perpetuated the “let go and let God” motto. He elaborated that Christ would rule in us so long as we did not interfere. Objectors claim that “Christ was supposedly let in and out of peoples’ lives like steam or electricity turned on or off.”88
According to Marsden, Keswick works in the United States because the notion of “free will” is an “American dogma.”89 Keswick negotiates between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. He ends his chapter on Keswick history by addressing it as a dispensational compliment within the Bible institute movement. It softened the often hard edge of “more objective arguments” and “the harder edge of a cultural pessimism by focusing on individual success.”90
Such is the history, but M. James Sawyer lays out the Keswick theology.91 For the Keswickian, there are two types of Christian: carnal and normal. For the normal Christian, the self is dethroned, yielded, absent. Any hint of self-identity, however, is carnal. Sin, in the Keswickian perspective, is overwhelmingly powerful. And while it can never be eradicated, it must be continually thwarted. Full surrender is the only solution; anything less is willful rebellion. What this comes down to is complete capitulation of anything human or anything personal. The self is useless. It must have no rights, no personality, and no humanity.
Sawyer also points out the formulaic quality of the Keswick mindset. Keswick proponents often tout their “five simple steps to a successful Christian walk!” This simplicity is only possible with an eradication of any difficult feelings. For the Keswickian, a strong faith is proven by positive “feelings.” Negative or strong feelings demonstrate self-rule and are, thus, to be avoided at all cost.
Keswick criticism comes not just from historians and mainline theologians. A 2006 BJU Seminary graduate, Andrew Naselli, traces Keswick history and theology and argues that Keswick is at odds with “historic Protestant theology.”92 He identifies Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of the Dallas Theological Seminary, as the chief peddler of Keswick theology in contemporary America. Naselli concludes that Keswick resists both the Reformed and the Wesleyan views of sanctification: “The Wesleyan view embraces a complete, instantaneous eradication of the indwelling sin tendency or law, and the historic Protestant view embraces a gradual eradication or mortification never completed until glorification. Keswick rejects both of these views, however, regarding them as forms of sinless perfectionism.”93 Since Keswick insists that any gradual sanctification is impossible, it insists upon a continuous counter-action of the flesh. “The Keswick view incorrectly understands the flesh to be an equally powerful nature alongside the believer’s new nature: both natures are unchanging entities within the believer, and only one is in total control at any given moment.”94 Just like Burke’s Augustine, the Keswick drama is a war within the believer between good and evil. Indeed, Keswick theology stumbles into Pelagianism—that hard-working but heretical foil to the historic (not Burkean) Augustine’s grace:
Keswick theology affirms a monergistic view of sanctification, namely, God does all the work and the believer is passive—with one crucial condition: the believer must choose to let God work. This is why Keswick theology is simultaneously guilty of both quietism and Pelagianism. The Achilles heel of Keswick theology is the question, “Who is responsible for the believer’s subsequent sin: Christ or the believer?” No one would say the former; it must be the believer. Ironically, once the believer has surrendered himself completely to the indwelling Christ, he still has the inherent ability to un-surrender himself and take control back—an explanation that defies logic. Without such an explanation, however, the indwelling Christ would be responsible for the believer’s sin. Placing such ultimate control in the believer resembles both “Pelagianism” and “magic.”95
What Naselli labels as “defying logic,” Burke finds in his read of Augustine, Marsden finds in the hot air balloon metaphor, and Sawyer sees in Keswick’s subjective standards. Keswick teaching assumes a Gnostic kind of dualism—the good angel and the bad devil sitting on the shoulders of every believer, ready to duke it out for ultimate control. When the believer remains completely passive, then the “good” side may take over. But any sign of will is certain doom. Just like Burke’s take on Augustine’s mortification, there is a quagmire in Keswick. The self-control that Keswick demands is impossible if the self is as wholly evil as they describe. Like Augustine, in the drama of Keswick, believers are very much the actors, holding the reins, controlling the outcome as well as the scene upon which the battle takes place. God is nothing more than a goal to be reached, a badge to be worn. The Christian walk is a tightrope that we must constantly balance all our weight upon, a tragic precipice upon which we teeter. One little slip to the left or the right, one little glimpse down below, and we’re doomed.
Mapping out the historical descriptions and the theological critiques of Keswick doctrine make Berg all that much more familiar territory. When Trouble Comes unwittingly and precisely follows the Keswick model. The book describes itself as a “crisis checklist.”96 The “crisis” is perilous. Either we choose rightly and succeed, or we choose poorly and plummet into thorny danger. “If we respond wrongly to any of these crises, the situation can become even more complicated.”97 So Berg follows Sawyer’s description of Keswick’s simple formulas. For Berg, following the straightforward “checklist” guarantees “joy.”98 The drama Berg presents is familiar: the believer purges the self through mortification in order to achieve unity with God. Berg hones this down by centering around four “truths”: “The greatest danger is always the flesh.”99 “The gospel is always the answer.”100 “God’s glory is always the goal.”101 “God Himself is always enough.”102
If “the greatest danger is always the flesh,”103 then simply being human is always the problem. Any whiff of personality or individuality is distracting. No “anger, bitterness, fear, or anxiety,” can be present. Maintaining this otherworldly beauty is rigorous. “It’s going to be tough,”104 Berg reminds us, because being human is so natural. Like Sawyer points out in Keswick, for Berg, simply being human is troublesome.
If “the gospel is always the answer,”105 then entrance into the romantic fold is really the toughest hurdle. “Once you are a child of God, your greatest crisis is over. . . . If God knows how to rescue you from your greatest crisis, He certainly knows how to deliver you from any other crisis of life”106 (emphasis his). Pre-salvation, then, Berg puts God as the agent in the drama; post-salvation, however, Berg presents the believer as the agent alone. “The gospel reveals man’s responsibility. . . . Man’s responsibilities after salvation are first to turn from his sinful bent to trust himself to make life work. Self-centeredness is at the root of his problem. He must confess his mutiny against God and ask forgiveness.”107 Like Burke’s Augustine, salvation is God’s work (thus reducing salvation to nothing more than “fire insurance”). The subsequent living as a Christian, however, is the believer’s sole domain. This switch, far from empowering, only delivers guilt as Burke so thoroughly describes.
If “God’s glory is always the goal,”108 then God has clearly moved from the primary agent in salvation to being the purpose in the mortification drama. Berg asserts that “a life focused on Christ will not crumble in crisis.”109 Notice that the believer is the one who determines the focus. Rather than saying “a life given to Christ” or “the Christian life,” Berg places the human responsibility as continuous and tenuous. The Christian life involves daily and difficult salvations from the flesh.
Any distraction from that badge of honor (God), any hint at self, and the romance is doomed. Like the three Hebrew students in the fiery furnace in Daniel, “we should respond in such a way that others who watch us in our ‘fiery furnace’ can see someone ‘like the Son of God’ with us in the furnace of our trial.”110 Looking good is more important than feeling good or even being good. Berg assumes that he and his are on display. They are “watched” during their struggles. When they are the most hurting, they must look the most serene.
If “God Himself is always enough,”111 then any discomfort is simple fleshliness or sin. If they are uncomfortable or unsettled, it is the believer’s own recalcitrant lack of information. “If our hearts are not at rest when trouble comes, it is because we do not realize how much He loves us.”’112 “The crisis reveals what we are.” Instead of the crisis revealing Whose they are, Berg puts the full responsibility on the sectarian’s character-building skills or beauty. The sectarian must constantly inspect and control quirkiness and individuality. Beauty marks foil the ideal. All are unified. All must look the same.
At one point in WTC, Berg claims that “our sinful natures are clones of Satan’s own nature.”113 He offers no biblical grounding or explanation, but the statement reveals the actor-as-scene tension in his tragedy as mortification. The comment seems secondary. So for a fuller description of this loaded statement, we can refer to another Berg book—his most popular Changed Into His Image—a 1999 text that has blossomed into a video series, workbook, a “teen” version, and alternate translations in Spanish, Portuguese, and German.
The title exposes Berg’s bias. Rather than the traditional Judeo-Christian interpretation that every human being is created in God’s Image, Berg frames it as something yet to come. In other words, being created in God’s image is not a past divine act, but an ongoing human process. To be like or one with God is the purpose of the believer’s purification through mortification. Given the whole drama in this text and in When Trouble Comes, believers change themselves into God’s image. Like Burke’s Augustine, like the Gnostics, like the Keswick revivalists, Berg places the responsibility for sanctification on the believer who purges the self through mortification.
His “Mortifying the Flesh” chapter could be lifted right from Burke’s analysis of the Confessions. Like in WTC, the “flesh” is interchangeable with “sin.” Berg describes it as “the indwelling sin principle that remains in a believer after he is saved, although its absolute power over him is broken.”114 The corporeal body and the sin are “inextricably linked in practice.” In the end, being human is being sinful.
Because flesh equals sin, it must be “mortified,” “denied,” “put off,” “not be served.” The believer is again the actor here. Being God/Christ-like or one with God is the goal. The act of purging is complicated because Berg’s list of sins are more a listing of human weaknesses than deliberate actions: “worry, deception, lack of endurance, destructive bodily habits (such as drugs, drinking, anorexia, bulimia, or overeating), anger, a critical spirit, discontent, profanity and other sins of the tongue, bitterness, laziness, rebellion to the authorities in your life, greed and materialism, gambling, or immoral behavior.” He reads Romans 6:11115 to be saying: “‘God knows you have been freed from the requirements to obey indwelling sin. Now you need to take it personally and quit living as if you had to obey it; start living unto God.’” Berg plainly puts the believer as the sole agent obeying through mortification or crucifying the old man.
What results is pure Gnostic dualism: good duking it out with bad, the spiritual battling the physical, the believer counter-acting Satan’s continuous control. The classic Evangelical sermon illustration of the black dog and the white dog fits here. The clichéd image describes a black dog and a white dog fighting inside each believer, and the one we feed is the one who wins.
Thus, implicit in the drama is a combative dichotomy between God and self. He even cites the maxim so popular in these Fundamentalist circles: “Just two choices on the shelf—pleasing God or pleasing self.” Being divine is everything that being human is not. They are mutually exclusive and continually at odds. Humanity is not made in God’s image but is made in Satan’s image, even after redemption. Combat is inevitable, and this violence to the self is redemptive.
The dichotomy is simple, but the battle is tedious. “The Christian life is not an easy life to live because of this warring sinfulness that dwells within us. Though it isn’t easy, it isn’t complicated. Complications are usually the natural consequences of going our own way.” It is tough but easy. If it seems complex, that is just our selfishness rearing its ugly head. The dualistic simplicity makes mortifying the self an irresistible alternative to more intricate, more tenuous, more comic solutions. All problems are, then, sin problems. All crises are spiritual battles. All losers are simply carnal.
Berg’s seeming simplicity is made even thornier by the subjective standards. While anorexia is clearly giving in the flesh, self-denial must never let up. “We have to exercise self-denial by saying no to the promptings of the flesh, but we also have to say no to any pull to feed the flesh, thus making it stronger. Every time we feed it in one area of life, we make it harder to say no to it in any area.”116 We do not know where legitimate flesh-feeding is apt or where it is sinful. Like Sawyer’s critique of Keswick, the standard is completely subjective. But the ambiguous character is not freeing like it would be in Wink’s comedy; instead it is demoralizing since like Burke’s Augustine, believers never know if they can reach the goal of oneness with God.
As for romance in Berg’s text, it is absent. Wooing the Other in this drama is impossible. It would be too complicated and too unsafe. Berg describes separation as insulation, not attraction. Every believer must separate, but for protection, not flirtation. “Personal separation from the world does not mean isolating ourselves from the world but rather insulating ourselves from its toxic, fleshly effect upon our souls.”117 For him, the believers must live in the world but be nowhere near the world. They live in plastic bubbles. They elevate themselves on an even higher pedestal not for attention, but for shelter. Berg offers a surgical metaphor to explain:
Today physicians and health-care professionals are more careful about protecting themselves from the AIDS virus because the possibility of exposure to it in their line of work has increased enormously. As a result, they do not reuse needles, and they wear surgical gloves and sometimes masks. They are extremely careful about contact with bodily fluids. They are not less careful because we live in a “modern age.” They are more careful because we live in a “corrupted age.” In the same way, believers who are concerned about their spiritual health will be more careful in this increasingly corrupt culture. There are more dangers to their souls—not fewer. The pagan, sensual, materialistic environment around them is more contaminated with ungodliness. The need for circumspect living is greater today—not less.118
The believer purges the self by insulating himself against suspect human contact. This insulation is another kind of mortification, another kind of denial of humanity. The drama has shifted from loving the Other by wooing to proving a oneness with God by showing a squeaky clean image. For Berg, the believer must exist within a sterile environment.119 Hydroponics of the soul is Berg’s horticulture.
Therefore, attraction is too vulnerable for Berg. He must be much more utilitarian. Insulation is the key. While the surgical gloves may be flexible, for this sectarian separation is most like Martin Marty’s carapace—protective, hermetically sealed, and even uncomfortable—there is no safe contact for this romantic. Even abstinence is too vulnerable. The romantic now separates for fortification, not as a rhetorical strategy for evangelism. The romance is now a war story—a war within.
Thus, in this text the romantic sectarian is far from beautiful. Too encased in hazmat gear to even be seen, the sectarian Berg kills the self as a scapegoat. Even the romantic’s position before God is insecure since the divine is both elevated and reduced to a goal. God’s grace must be earned by regularly removing dangerously growing fleshliness. The insider without proper protection might even be the worst secular outsider: the reprobate. “The [Christian] individual’s problem isn’t that he is somehow ‘out of his right mind.’ His problem is that he has a ‘reprobate mind,’ and he is reaping what he has been sowing.”120
Thus, in interpreting the sacred Text, Berg and Burke’s Augustine sound the same. Berg presents a constant battle between the flesh and the spirit just as Burke’s Augustine sacrifices continuously. Berg’s distinction between selfishness and selflessness is tenuous and subjective just as Burke is never sure when Augustine is actually acting or merely moving. Berg frames God as an aspiring Image or goal just as Burke’s Augustine strives for a divine Order. Berg is always threatened by the self just as Burke reads Genesis as continuously menacing humanity with its dusty origins. In sum, both purge. Both confuse the action versus motion dichotomy. Both make the believer the actor and the scene. Both make the divine a goal never quite reached. And in doing so, in making God an irretrievable carrot-on-a-stick, both are recalcitrantly tragic. Neither seeks resolution but persists in the cycle of tragedy like a hamster stuck in its wheel.
And Wink’s way and Wallis’s politics can best speak to all concerned. Wink puts the tragedy as mythological not biblical, as temporary not inevitable, as unredeemed not a step in redemption. Sacrificing has ended, and so killing the self has ended too. From the Sermon on the Mount, Wink foregrounds a creative improvisation to startle, but never destroy, the enemy. In love, Wink finds hope for redefining the Secular Other as adversaries instead of enemies. Wink reminds the sectarian to separate not for insulation, but for strategy. To him, purity, not impurity, is catchy! Rather than pushing the divine into the distance as an irretrievable goal with the believer purifying the self through mortification, Wink makes God and the believer co-agents in ministering Grace to fellow human beings. And Wallis takes Wink’s way to the streets by telling these already-outsiders to continue their impious politics, to ignore political divisions, and to work the polls like a prophet instead of a politico.
Romance as Cultivation: BJU’s Greenhouse Curriculum
So a comical hope exists even for these sectarians still recovering from the political rejection after Campaign 2000. Wink and Wallis can be that undistributed middle term between these sectarians and comedy. Yet the BJU culture offers a glimmer of comic correction as well. As bestsellers as Berg’s books may be, his drama is not alone in the BJU discourse. Both historical and contemporary documents present a separation in defiance of insulation, a Christian life more human and confident than mortification, and a future more connected with its community than afraid. There are bold cultivating voices among the anxious mortifying ones.
The education philosophy from BJU documents is specifically and directly articulated in defiance to the Keswick fear of humanity. Author and faculty member Ron Horton states that Bob Jones, Sr. founded the school in direct critique to the Bible Institute movement. Dr. Jones saw the Christian walk as less a mysterious balance and more a plain common sense. Having a liberal arts curriculum—one that relishes human endeavor—is incoherent within the Keswickian mindset.121
Seeking academic accreditation, too, is far from insulating. Though the approval comes from a relatively new accrediting body, the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, the move is strategic and potentially endearing.122 Title IV Federal Student Aid may also soften that hardening carapace.
Thus, philosophical foundations and new policies frustrate the separation as insulation ethic and open the possibilities for a romantic comedy. And now a new administration offers more comedic metaphor for the next generation. Stephen Jones, great-grandson of the founder, is the first BJU president without the “Robert Reynolds” moniker. He has been described as “more attuned” to the Millennial generation in the student body.123 Far from the exciting extroverted evangelists before him, “he’s more anti-hellfire and brimstone,” reporters quip. Jones expresses a gracious “reaching-out” reminiscent of pre-Campaign 2000 romance. “[Jesus] reached beyond the pure believers of his day,” he reminds a reporter. To him, the campus is a nurturing “greenhouse,” a family that grows Christians stronger.
And within that curriculum embracing of humanity, within that attractive strategy of outreach, within that comedic cultivation of a greenhouse, Bob Jones University can find a new rhetoric. A greenhouse is a temporary place. Its purpose is to start the seed, feed it, nurture it lovingly, and eventually harden off that plant and send it out into the world to bloom and flourish. Greenhouses are used to grow plants that are not only beautiful, but also strong. They not only produce good fruit, but also weather the storm. Not just for show and not just for the fight, the products of a greenhouse will thrive and attract many future generations. A faith grown in a Keswick ethic cannot withstand the inhospitable winter of a secular world. It must remain cocooned and insulated in a perfectly controlled climate because it cannot brave the outside.
As gardeners in a greenhouse, these romantics can be better comedians. With Wink and Wallis’s landscape design, they can plan a more beautiful garden. Within a cultivating ethic, they can sing more like the romantically comic tune so predominant in their Museum and Gallery. They can boldly resist what Wink calls the “Myth of Redemptive Violence” as far from Christian. They can confidently ignore the lines Republican pundits draw as legitimate boundaries for political engagement. They can, like Wallis suggests, take religion more seriously than the rest and embrace a prophetic politics. These sectarians are already well-versed in liminal living. They know how to be strategically beautiful. By resisting the old tragic Augustinian mortification, by refusing Gnostic dualism, by critiquing Keswickian frustration, by choosing differently than Berg’s actor-as-scene tragedy, they can begin to articulate a confidently radiant beauty. They can join God in the ongoing work and demonstrate grace to those around them—including themselves. After the spurning of Campaign 2000, they have just two choices on the shelf: growing grace or killing self. The latter will ruin their testimony and their sanctity. The former will only let it blossom.
1Kenneth Burke, “The Philosophy of Literary Form.” In The Philosophy of Literary Form (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1941) 110–11.
2Jim Berg, Changed into His Image: God's Plan for Transforming Your Life (Greenville: U Bob Jones P, 1999) 100.
3David Domke, God Willing?: Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the “War on Terror,” and the Echoing Press (Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto P, 2004). Domke describes George W. Bush as a “political fundamentalist” using the naïve recalcitrance of conservative Evangelicalism as a guide for policy.
4Bob Jones, Letter to President Bush upon his Re-Election (3 Nov 2004) Online, 30 August 2005
5After the 9/11 attacks, Falwell blamed “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America” for “help[ing] this happen.” “Falwell Apologizes to Gays, Feminists, Lesbians,” CNN.com (14 Sept 2001) Online, 14 Sept 2001. 17 March 2006
6Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (Berkeley: U California P, 1970). vi.
7Burke, Religion 2.
8Burke, Religion v.
9Burke, Religion 1.
10Clarke Rountree and Mark Huglen, “Editors’ Essay: “Toward the Next Phase,” KBJournal.org, Fall 2004. Burke’s mother was a Christian Scientist, and he has often expressed more than a passing admiration for the Christian Scientist perspective.
11Burke, Religion 17.
12Burke, Religion 7.
13Burke, Religion 35–36.
14Burke, Religion 136.
15Burke, Religion 137.
16Burke, Religion 135.
18Burke, Religion 223.
19Burke, Religion 174.
20Burke, Religion 180.
21Burke, Religion 178.
22Burke, Religion 200.
23Burke, Religion 206.
24Burke, Religion 208–10.
25Burke, Religion 212.
26Burke, Religion 191.
27Burke, Religion 222.
28Burke, Religion 236.
29Burke, Religion 100, 200–01.
30Burke, Religion 271.
31Burke, Religion 271.
32Burke, Religion 200.
33Burke, Religion 249.
34Burke, Religion 266–267.
35Burke, Religion 200.
36Burke, Religion 207.
37Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (Berkeley: U California P, 1950) 13.
38Kenneth Burke, “Realism and Idealism,” The Dial 74 (1923): 97–99.
39James F. Klumpp, “‘Dancing With Tears in My Eyes’: Celebrating the Life and Work of Kenneth Burke,” Southern Communication Journal 61 (Fall 1995): 1–10.
40A. Cheree Carlson, “Creative Casuistry and Feminist Consciousness: A Rhetoric of Moral Reform,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 78 (1992): 16–32.
41Kenneth Burke, Counter-Statement (Berkeley: U California P, 1968) 64.
42Kenneth Burke, “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle.” In The Philosophy of Literary Form (Baton Rouge: U Louisiana State P, 1941) 191–220. Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1980). Other critics of Western civilization’s tragedy suggest solutions just as unsatisfying as Burke’s. Alice Miller in For Your Own Good uses Hitler’s Germany as the worst representative anecdote imaginable. For Burke, it is Hitler’s politics; for Miller, it is German parenting. She describes a “poisonous pedagogy” within eighteenth-century through nineteenth-century parenting manuals and summarizes their ethic as follows: adults must master the child whose will must be broken; self-respect is harmful but self-loathing is desirable; gentleness is dangerous; and the artificially pleasing is better than the honestly displeasing. Requiring German children to obey their parents the first time without question trained them to do the same when Hitler demanded that they complete unspeakable crimes also without question. Miller creatively ignores disciplinary boundaries and the imaginary line between the public and the private. To her, the most private crimes made the worst public sin possible and inevitable.
The German notions that “parents are always right” and “responding to a child’s needs is wrong” and “first-time obedience is expected” are jarringly familiar. The death-to-self or mortification in Augustine is extended to death-to-child or punishment in the German home. Unity with the parent is only possible through brutal abuse which cleanses both parent and child from any whiff of dissent.
Miller convincingly connects this familiar “poisonous pedagogy” to the horror of the Holocaust and, thus, creates an irrepressible desire in her readers for some resolution. But her prescription is absent—a tragedy in itself. She concludes: “All we can do, as I see it, is to affirm and lend our support to the human objects of manipulation in their attempts to become aware and help them become conscious of the malleability and articulate their feelings so that they will be able to use their own resources to defend themselves against the soul murder that threatens them.” All children are and will be inevitably reared “poisonously,” and therapists and novelists, she surmises, will be the agents of discovery and change for the future adult. Miller vividly identifies the catalyst for the worst evil in recent memory, but she cannot fathom a solution—another tragedy in itself.
Burke and Miller identify the same problem in German culture. In reading Mein Kampf, Burke sees Hitler’s “cure” for German problems as passing off “one’s ills to a scapegoat, thereby getting purification by dissociation.” The more guilt we carry, the more rage we must vent on the scapegoat, whether Jew or child.
And like Miller, Burke can only imagine that awareness is the solution: “Our job, then, our anti-Hitler Battle, is to find all available ways of making the Hitlerite distortions of religion apparent, in order that politicians of his kind in America be unable to perform a similar swindle” (Burke). While it is a start, for both Miller and Burke, this is only a chuckle. Neither can imagine anything more in the face of such horror than a risky whistling past the graveyard.
43Walter Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Galilee Trade, 1999) 16–17.
49Burke, “Hitler’s Battle.”
61Wink 88–89, 91.
77Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (New York: Harper Collins, 2005) xviii.
85From I Samuel 7:12, an Ebenezer stone is a reminder that “God has helped us thus far.”
86George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870–1925 (New York: Oxford P, 1980) 78.
91M. James Sawyer, “Wesleyan & Keswick Models of Sanctification” (Dallas: bible.org, 2005). Online. http://www.bible.org/page.asp?page_id=391
92Andrew David Naselli, Keswick Theology: A Historical and Theological Survey and Analysis of the Doctrine of Sanctification in the Early Keswick Movement, 1875-1920 (Greenville, SC: BJU, 2006).
96Jim Berg, When Trouble Comes (Greenville: U Bob Jones P, 2002) vii.
114Jim Berg, Changed into His Image: God's Plan for Transforming Your Life (Greenville, SC: U Bob Jones P, 1999).
115Romans 6:11, KJV: Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
116Berg Changed, 102.
117Berg Changed, 103–04.
118Berg Changed, 103–04.
119Berg Changed, 107.
120Berg Changed, 109.
121From Ron Horton, “BJU Statement of Christian Education” (Greenville, SC: U Bob Jones P, 2004) Online, 17 March 2006, . Horton explains the Bob Jones pedagogical focus as distinct from Keswick’s “deeper life” inward focus. “Our common-sense realism encourages a balanced approach in peripheral theological matters that have divided orthodox Protestantism as well as a down-to-earth approach to the Christian life. Certain features of our Puritan heritage and of European pietism in general have given an introverted, mystical character to some Evangelicalism. Oddly coupled with this subjective “deeper life” inwardness is the emotional exuberance of Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on the experiential validation of truth. These intuitional tendencies, too easily disregardful of doctrine, have merged in leftward evangelicalism with an intellectualism anxious to establish rational bases for faith and eager for the respect of liberal scholarship. Intuitionism and intellectualism have not been characteristic of historic American Fundamentalism, nor are they part of our defining identity. For our founder, Dr. Bob Jones Sr., success in the Christian life was largely a matter of obedience and good sense. Hence, our anti-rationalism and anti-charismaticism.”
122 “Bob Jones University seeks accreditation for first time.” Associated P, 27 April 2005.
123Davenport, Jim. “Bob Jones Changes Leadership.” Associated P, 6 May 2005.
124Hawes, Jennifer Berry. “This is His Father’s World.” The Post and Courier. 10 July 2005.
Publish and Perish?: My Fundamentalist Education from the Inside Out by Camille K. Lewis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.