The Christ with a thousand faces
How trad Christians and woke progressives are unknowing co-religionists, and how the leading moral battles of our age really come down to casting
This is a follow-on piece to my biblically-long interview with Tom Holland, which spurred as many thoughts as the interview had digressions. Assuming I don’t experience a reader revolt over my sudden detour into theological anthropology, there’s at least one more piece in the hopper about the Christ myth in contemporary life. The subscriber-only piece later this week will be a calm return to the regularly-scheduled program of wonky takes on media, technology and privacy.
It was impossible that the Christians, without renouncing a more sacred duty, could assume the character of soldiers, of magistrates, or of princes. This indolent, or even criminal disregard to the public welfare, exposed them to the contempt and reproaches of the Pagans, who very frequently asked, what must be the fate of the empire, attacked on every side by the barbarians, if all mankind should adopt the pusillanimous sentiments of the new sect?
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Elites of a crumbling empire falling for an ecstatic cult fixated on a criminal publicly brutalized to death by the authorities, preaching a gospel obsessed with the salvation of the oppressed, whose fervent adepts desecrate the symbols of civic authority.
Are we in fourth-century Rome or the United States in 2020 AD? Would be hard to tell based on that description, wouldn’t it?
The Western mind is like a tuning fork calibrated to one frequency: the Christ story. Hit it with the right Christ figure, and it’ll just hum deafeningly in resonance.
It’s also essential to have the correct Roman centurion torturing our chosen Christ for the story to stick. Consider how up in arms this country has been with the Black Lives Matter movement around police violence, an undoubtedly noble goal. However, the number of those killed in one weekend of inner-city violence in Chicago outpaces the total number of unarmed Blacks killed nationwide by police in all of last year. One can’t help but conclude that the reason for one narrative of tragic violence going hyper-viral instead of another is that, in the America of 2021, the police are the ideal Roman centurions in the Christ narrative, irrespective of the actual source of most violence.
Or take for example the rash of reprehensible anti-Asian violence that’s swept the country. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the violence was somehow pinned on ‘white supremacy’ in order to make the narrative consistent with the current preferred tormentor. Pontius Pilate, who represented systemic Roman oppression in the literal Christ story, now represents the systemic oppression in our contemporary Christ mythos. It’s transparently clear who must play that role. Far from being a story uniquely about the victim, it ‘takes two to tango’ in the Christ story: if you want hashtags and viral outrage you’d better make sure both figures are properly cast to set aflame the mind of the post-Christian woke evangelical.1
It’s an odd reflex when you think about it: most non-Western societies don’t spend much of their headspace finding oppressed categories of people and elevating them into sainthood before seeking to re-engineer society for their benefit in the name of cosmic completion.
It’s an odd reflex when you think about it: most non-Western societies don’t spend much of their headspace finding oppressed categories of people and elevating them into sainthood before seeking to re-engineer society for their benefit in the name of cosmic completion. It’s an odd religion that makes a tortured criminal their symbol of divinity and plasters the cross he was murdered on everywhere, from the tops of their temples to (formerly) classrooms. The physical cross might be less common now than it once was, but the Christ symbol has never been more ubiquitous in our public discourse. We’re inventing new versions of Christ all the time.
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” - Acts 2:1-4
Consider the recently coined ‘demisexual’, which made the news when Michaela Cuomo came ‘out’ as one : it means people who need to feel an emotional bond before having sex with someone, and joins the growing list of sexual identities. Apparently, this is somehow considered novel enough to newly coin, and I also hereby also come out as one.
This seems silly, but is wholly consistent with the regnant moral narrative. The only podium a public speaker can now assume is either that of the cross of victimhood itself, or that of a groveling penitent at its feet repenting for past wrongs. Every time someone begins a public pronouncement with the formula ‘As an X’, where X is some agreed-upon category of revered victimhood, they are snatching the crown of thorns off Christ’s head and putting it on themselves before approaching the microphone. It’s the sine qua non of public discourse among the circles most evangelical in their wokeness, and anyone without such a crown approaches a public forum at their peril.
We’ve arrived at an inflection point where the great moral struggles have reached such a level of nitpicking refinement that the pettiest of grievances are blown up to Manichaean proportions. Even René Girard, a fervent Catholic and defender of Christian moral exceptionalism, highlights the often silly ends of victimhood reverence in his I See Satan Fall Like Lightning:
Our society is the most preoccupied with victims of any that ever was. Even if it is insincere, a big show, the phenomenon has no precedent. No historical period, no society we know, has ever spoken of victims as we do. This concern sometimes is so exaggerated and in a fashion so subject to caricature that it arouses laughter, but we should guard against seeing it as only one thing, as nothing but twaddle that's always ineffective. It is more than a hypocritical comedy. Through the ages it has created a society incomparable to all the others. It is unifying the world for the first time in history.
Don’t get me wrong, the moral progression of Christianity has been impressive: from weird martyrology cult to languishing in the post-Roman Dark Ages to finally emerging as a world power that, very imperfectly and slowly, created a kinder and fairer world. It wasn’t Christian societies that invented the slavery they participated in, but it was Christian societies that invented the abolitionism that eventually did away with it. This Christian urge to dignify everyone, even lowly strangers, with moral worth is historically exceptional. Expanding the realm of social concern beyond the usual foci of the strong, the beautiful, and the powerful has created the world we see today. I’d rather live in a society that inherited Christianity’s moral compass, and so too would even most of the West’s critics, almost all of whom condemn the West’s supposed moral horrors while living snugly inside it.
Both avowed Christians and the woke activist agree on the moral script for our world, they merely disagree on the casting. Which Christ figure should we revere, the historical one as refracted by formal Christianity, or updated and secularized ones like George Floyd and ‘demisexuals’?
What’s intriguing is that this secularized obsession with victimhood and suffering so often falls afoul of the more traditional Christian adepts. As I referenced in my Tom Holland interview, I once asked noted conservative writer Rod Dreher if the duality between wokeness and Christianity he presents in his recent book Live Not By Lies was not in fact two interpretations of the same gospel. He utterly rejected the proposal, but I think Dreher gets hung up on the sexual morality side of things.
Progressives and right-wing Christians aren’t ideological enemies, they’re co-religionists. Seen from outside the Christian worldview, this is a purely internecine conflict. Both avowed Christians and the woke activist agree on the moral script for our world, they merely disagree on the casting. Which Christ figure should we revere, the historical one as refracted by Orthodox Christianity that Dreher believes in, or updated and secularized ones like George Floyd and ‘demisexuals’?
Some part of me agrees with other Christian writers who try to defend the ‘classical liberal’ tradition from within Christianity, but they’re on a fool’s errand. They think they’re fighting some external enemy, perhaps one of the historical enemies of Christianity like paganism, but really they’re not. They’re fighting the very same Christ figure they believe in, just a different and more contemporary incarnation. They have no moral weapons against the New Christians (read: the wokesters), other than vague allusions to either traditionalism or covenantal nationhood, neither of which hold much water outside the pages of First Things or David French’s tweets.
Under liberalism as it currently exists in the West, the arrow of history only runs in one direction, and that’s ever further to the left, and with ever greater concern for ever smaller sources of victimhood and injustice. For everyone privately (or not so privately) thinking I haven’t moved left, I’ve stood still and somehow I’m on the right now, you are correct.
Under liberalism as it currently exists in the West, the arrow of history only runs in one direction, and that’s ever further to the left, and with ever greater concern for ever smaller sources of victimhood and injustice.2 For everyone privately (or not so privately) thinking I haven’t moved left, I’ve stood still and somehow I’m on the right now, you are correct. The US polity has grown more polarized, and in its elite reaches has moved significantly to the left. As proof, just watch any speech by either Clinton or Obama as recently as the aughts: they’d get canceled now for saying what was once bland consensus.
This is all wholly unsurprising once you understand the power of the Christ narrative, a power that Paul understood with transcendent clarity. The son of God died in dramatic fashion, and then miraculously reappeared to his dazzled disciples, who were all the more ready to take up his revolutionary message. Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again! exclaim Catholics during mass. And indeed he does for every new generation of disciples, whether they fully realize it or not.
The current primacy of the Pilate character in the story undermines René Girard’s theory concerning societal scapegoats. In Girard’s expansive theory, elevating the victim of mob violence to divinity defuses the tendency toward scapegoating that exists in all human societies. Christ robs humanity of its urge to heap all of our sins on one figure, to be mercilessly destroyed or cast out in a cathartic, bonding ritual of collective violence. As the Christ story is actually deployed nowadays, it’s far less about relieving the suffering of the victim and more about condemning Christ’s putative tormentors. Look! exclaims the modern wokester, our Pilate is guilty! And there’s the evidence of his guilt right there, the crumpled victim at his feet! The Christ story is actually scapegoating by other means.