October 28, 2022

Strange Rites, Stranger Things and Even Stranger Bedfellows

If you haven’t read Tara Isabella Burton’s book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, you must. It’s an exceptional socio-cultural exploration of the shift in the West away from institutional religion to what she terms (and it’s a self-explanatory great term), intuitional religion.

Yes that’s right. Just as with my term “A Sexular Age”, used to describe the tone and feel of where we are at in a supposedly secular time, Burton pulls this catchy little phrase out of the bag – “Intuitional religion”. I hope, unlike me, she patents the term early. She’ll make a mint!

That aside, if you’re a pastoral worker in a church, or even if you’re merely trying to understand why your children, your college or work colleagues, or simply the online world, thinks the way it does, indeed acts the way it does, then this book is vital. If you’re wondering why the Christian framework you offer as good news is not simply seen as bad news, but as dangerous and repressive news that no amount of smoke machines or seeker-friendly services will overcome, then read this book.

Burton unpacks how the religious desire, and indeed the religious zeal, that is latent within humans is not only not going away, it can’t go away. We’re hardwired for it. But she deftly shows how, in this consumer internet age, the religious impulse has taken on a real pick and mix approach, one that is capable of holding in tension competing beliefs.

Intuitional religion (it’s the vibe your Honour) throws wellness, self-help, New Age, witchery (yep witches are back, but this time the black magic is literally on the cards), social justice, conspicuous consumption culture, environmentalism etc into the cauldron. And before you know it, hubble bubble, toil and trouble, we have a deeply religious framework for our secular age. She utilises another term we’re going to be using often to describe the current generations: “Remixed”. And once again, even as you read it, you understand what she means by that.

Her thesis, that we can’t help but be religious, kinda blows away the idea that a post-Christian West will become rationalistic and only materialistic (though more of that later). And here’s the kicker, and the strength of the book, Burton is much more interested in what a religion does than what a religion is.

This carries the weight of the book. She’s nailed it, right? Our struggle in apologetics is that our finest sounding, watertight arguments are no longer met with outrage, but increasingly with a “meh”. In other words, as people listen to us unpack how Christianity alone gives true meaning to our lives, and that deep, dark materialist secularism is not answering the existential cri de couer, we’re finding to our horror, that most people are not actually into deep, dark materialist secularism. I mean, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are so 2006! People today are into all sorts of incantations and spells, and they’re able to access them in meaningful, and meaning making ways.

Tara Isabella Burton: (looking pleasantly for all the world like a creation of her namesake Tim Burton)

Burton offers a quadrant that explains what a religion does, and I think she’s right. She says that for religion to work it needs to contain these four elements: Meaning, Purpose, Community and Ritual. And when it comes to providing a worldview that, even if not coherent, is compelling, then these four are more than a match for the Four Horsemen of the Atheistic Apocalypse, Dawkins, Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett (clearly the Ringo Starr of the bunch).

Now none of that says anything about orthodoxy, but that’s not the point. Burton is saying that these four elements create and empower the religious impulse. And folks, if you hadn’t guessed already, we’re not the only crew putting out a shingle with those four words on it.

Burton is starting to sound like an incisive sociological observer when she states:

Taken all together, rituals and a sense of purpose link a community with a wider meaning. Sure, almost anyone can hop on an exercise bike. Or light a candle. Or post on Twitter. But what about when they’re sharing energy with a pack in eliminating toxins and practicing self-care? Or when they’re lighting a candle in contact with thousands of other self-proclaimed witches on Facebook or Instagram in order to collectively hex a despised political figure as a form of performance-art political activism? Or when they’re “s@#&posting” in a political meme war, sharing right wing talking points and trolling their political enemies as part of a brotherhood devoting to taking down the cathedrals of feminism?

That starts to look a lot more like a religion.

It does, doesn’t it? Especially if those four – ritual, purpose, community and meaning -, are the things religions riff on and lean in to.

This clearly presents the church with a seismic task. Because not only do we have to demonstrate that our institutions can sate these desires in a deeper, richer way , we belong to an institutional religion that flies in the face of the self-focussed, self-help agenda that the intuitional embraces as life-affirming.

In other words, there’s no point ticking all four quadrants, if our product is toxic to the prevailing mood of curating our autonomous desires, and indeed baptising them as a “higher selfishness” as New York Times columnist David Brooks called. Turns out love is all around, only it’s self-love. The path to caring for others is to care for yourself first, a task which proves delightful, takes dedication, and is ultimately eternally distracting. How much self-care is enough in this consumer age? Just a little bit more.

So when Jesus comes along and says “Hey I’ve got ritual, purpose, meaning and community for you, and all you have to do is die to yourself and follow me exclusively in the sure and certain hope of life to come!”, intuitional religion turns up a nose that’s had some work, pouts a Botoxed lip and says “Get bent.”

Burton skewers the self-focus that is driving the intuitional, often online, cathedrals of our age. Here’s what she says:

The refractory nature of these new intuitional religions, each one at its core a religion of the self, risks creating an increasingly balkanised American culture, one in which our desire for personal authenticity and spiritual fulfilment takes precedence over our willingness to build coherent ideological systems and functional, sustainable institutions. When we are all our own high priests, who is willing to kneel?”

Gosh, what great writing! And as an aside where is the zinging theological writing coming from among our more orthodox brothers and sisters? We need better writers pitching our better stories in this enchanted godless age. Rosaria Butterfield aside, I know very few Christian non-fiction writers who woo me through a combination of argument and prose.

But once again, she’s nailed it. What’s the bug in the intuitional system? It’s the refractory nature of it all. True community cannot be sustained. Why? Because at some stage your authenticity project is going to come into conflict with my authenticity project.

Indeed as she unpacks where it’s all going Burton comes to the conclusion that the only way intuitional movements will succeed is if they become institutional. And that will take work. And cooperation. And compromise. And one other thing – it will take power. Intuitionals will only become institutional by grasping the levers of power.

Which they are “hell-bent” on doing. One of the more interesting, and disturbing, aspects of the modern witchery movement among the Remixed religions is its complete absence of blush when it comes to using black Satanic magic to control one’s enemies, especially patriarchal abusive enemies who have gamed the system through their power.

Black magic it may be, but it is bent on noble ends. Yes that’s right folks, Satan is back, primped and preened, and at his cloven-footed best. Dressed in his kinked up spandex, Stradivarius in hand, Lucifer is standing at the crossroads of your life, beckoning you. Only this time he’s siding with the downtrodden and powerless. What could go wrong?

There’s a real irony here. One of the blind spots of the whole intuitional witchery movement is how white, western and well-off or WWW as I put it) it is, even if its being owned by Wiccan POCs who can’t afford to live in Brooklyn central. The very witchcraft that will supposedly be so liberating to the West is the very same witchcraft that is enslaving black Africans through fear and power in the Majority World. But then again, the Father of Lies has never been too fussy as to which lie he will use and where. After all, pragmatism, – the soup de jour of the intuitional consumer -, is his modus operandi. You can go to hell in a rickety handcart pulled by methane-producing horses, or in an ecologically sensitive and beautifully designed Tesla; the devil’s not fussy.

And Burton recognises the tension of the intuitional love of chaos and deconstruction. She observes:

If these ideologies are to survive they will need to take on a more formal shape. They need to become not merely religious sentiments or implicit theologies, but ironically, – institutions, narratives and communities capable of both withstanding internal dissent and providing a unified front against more established rivals. Beyond offering a pleasing product for individuals to consume at will, they need to provide a wholesale ideology no less powerful say, than American evangelical Christianity or the Catholic Church. In other words can the Remixed intuitional strain be reworked once more into a civil religion? And what would that even look like?

First an observations, then some good news and some bad news.

The observation: The whole “tear it down cos it stinks” mantra presupposes an ordered, orderly and reordering that is founded upon rule of law, and the self-aware, self-limiting power of the powerful. It requires – nay demands – a vision of an ideal future using the cultural tools it has neither supplied, nor is likely able to sustain. The post-Christian, post-institutional religions are parasites. They want the powerful to hand over the reins of power on the basis of what? Guilt? An admission that they have it wrong and they new kids on the block have it right? Do they think that power will be handed to them? And even if handed to them, will they be able to hold it without virtual – or perhaps actual – bloody fights, they type they keep decrying? Not gonna happen. Another power struggle will ensue. And then victor becomes oppressor.

Which brings us to the good news – or at least it’s good news to me as I watch this intuitional thing move to the cultural centre: The coalition of the Remix Institutional willing is indeed unsustainable. Base your beliefs around deep autonomy and when you finally win the battle you will do what all unstable wartime coalitions do in peacetime – rend each other apart. That’s not good in itself, but it may indicate that we have reached “peak-intuitional”, at least in terms of any bigger aim.

This deep autonomy – the insistence of “lived experience” alone as the standard – is reason the “T” is now coming apart from the “LGB”. Despite the coalition’s obviuous need to state otherwise, they’ve won the battle. The proof is twofold. First sex and gender politics makes big coin – huge coin in fact. The customer is always right. As Burton constantly observes, we only need to follow the money to see which intuitional religions hold sway.

But secondly, look at the civil war that is shredding the alphabet identity markers. Take a deep dive (all the while holding your nose) on Twitter. It’s a brutal battle as feminists and lesbians punch back at the trans community. Gender and sex where never going to make good bedfellows – literally. If lesbians are being labelled bigots and phobic because they refuse to recognise transwomen as real women, despite the cultural nobility’s insistence that they are, then this thing is going to fall apart. Google “cotton ceiling” and avert your gaze.

The deep strength of the gospel is that we don’t build a unity of odds and bods that we then have to frantically hold together. No, the Holy Spirit gives us a unity and we are to maintain it. And how do we maintain it? By the power of the same Holy Spirit who gave it to us. Wins all round! So if you’re the crowing type, make some popcorn and sit back and watch as the intuitional religions fracture on the rocks of autonomy. But if you’re the praying type, pray for the refugees who get washed up on our shores by it.

And the bad news? Burton says that there are three strong contenders that have the growing cohesion and cultural clout to build a post-Christian intuitional institution (and remember it will be one without grace at its foundation). Two of them (we’ll get to the third indepth another blog post) are also strange bedfellows even if they’re pretty much sleeping in separate rooms now. These are the post-Christian social justice movement (SJM), and the Silicon Valley-driven techno-utopianism (think Singularity and transhumanism/metaverse) steeped in libertarianism. Both are deeply hostile to the prevailing social structures, though they start at different points.

Burton believes that the SJM is a chance to become institutional not just because of the sheer buy-in it has politically, but also because it fulfils the four-quadrant criteria. And it does so with recognisably religious categories of evil/good, sinners/saints. This movement, says Burton, “bends the arc of justice towards a new Eden.” Sounds idyllic in some senses, except for the fact that Edens are great starting points and terrible landing points. In some sense SJM makes the same mistake as some public Christianity does – it keeps looking back to a template that was never intended to be a finishing point. Ecological Eden is no more possible for SJM than Ethical Eden is for orthodox proponents of marriage. Yes we do believe that Adam and Eve are the template, but in Adam all die. Only in Christ is their true life and fulfilment. There’s no going back. For anyone. History shows how blood-riven the attempts to do so become.

And the techno-utopian ideal? If our best bet is disembodied transhumanism, then I just can’t see that as anything other than an escape pod from a collapsing world. Where’s the eschatological hope in that? And the sheer naivety of the movement! The promises of metaverse reality in which we all get to hang out with people with no biases and prejudices. After all, if no one has a body, then there’s nothing to abuse right? Wrong. Even in the early stages of immersive technologies, sexually abusive and explicit online actions are traumatising people. Neither option can see the sick seed contained within the heart. Or as GK Chesterton replied something akin to this when a UK paper posited the question to its readers: “What is wrong with the world?”.

“Dear Sir,

I am,

yours truly,

GK Chesterton

None of which means that people will return to our institutional version of religion, in a sort of “come back to Papa!” movement. Not in great numbers at least.

But then again, why not? If the prevailing mood declares that spells, incantations and hexes have the power of the gods, then what of the powers of the actual God? It’s at least plausible that we may see a return to the gospel in greater numbers than we dared hope. After all, the transcendent furniture has been delivered flat-packed to our doors. We just need to assemble it according to the instructions (men need not apply).

How is the culture building the furniture? Without the instructions – hence intuitionally. With assembly manuals more like Harry Potter and Stranger Things. With the clinging belief that what we can see is not the sum total of all of the reality that exists. With the suspicions that the world we live in might just be porous, and things – stranger things than we can imagine – can leak into it.

Turns out we’re far more medieval than we thought. In a most modern way of course. And it’s interesting as a by-the-by, that as Season Five of Stranger Things is set to begin, the gay trope is about to be launched into the sleepy hollow we known as sleepy old Hawkins. Don’t believe this could be a central thread to a small town creed? Stranger things than that have happened there.

And where does this leave my Four Horsemen of the Atheistic Apocalypse? I mean if the cultural phenomenon of Hawkins is already apocalyptic, then what do they have left? Atheism presumes no apocalypse: “Nothing transcendent to see here, right?” So it’s a fine turn when Richard Dawkins tells us in his mouldy cardigan manner that, for the sake of understanding our cultural heritage in the West, we should all ensure that we read the King James Version of the Bible. You know, just for the articles.

It’s a bit like mother telling you to take your cod liver oil. It’s disdainful but it’s doing you good. It seems like they missed the enchantment memo, and have realised, too late, that the Christian framework might just be the best way to rein in and channel the magic. Recent history indicates they may have fallen from their high disenchanted horses. Dawkins risking being cancelled for being the old misogynist, sexist and racist grandfather the more progressive types suspect he is. While Harris can’t seem to come up with an “ought” for his “is”. Increasingly he’s getting called out for it.

Dare I say it – disenchantment is not the future. Nor is re-enchantment. Turns out we’ve been enchanted all this time. And we know that’s true because late modern capitalism is selling us enchantment. And anything that don’t make a buck won’t fly when it comes to consumption culture. When was capitalism anything but a day late and a dollar short? It is the ultimate parasite, feeding downstream from our inherent desires and our self-insisted (fuelled by consumerism’s narrative) needs.

Turns out we are as enchanted as ever, only this time magic is coming to our doorsteps, order from the cathedral of Amazon, and delivered to us by deacons dressed in DHL orange vestments. Don’t you just feel that tremor of transcendent gold dust when you rip open the box? I know I do.

And what’s that third contender that is perhaps destined to fill the Remixed generation’s void? It’s the alt-right movement and its Nietzschean despising of the weak, the women, the queer, and the “normies’ (conformers), along with the assortment of also-ran incels from Losersville. Or should I say the “alt-right.com”, as this is where they – ironically – have proliferated, just as those they despise have done.

Burton deals with them with the same concern as I do when I refer to the “Christendom Without Christ” paradigm that mirrors the progressive “Kingdom Without The King”. Without the King at its centre, the progressive kingdom will crumble into the beautiful, yet facile apocalypse that Melbourne pastor Mark Sayers speaks of in his writings.

Yet without Christ, the conservative Christendom will drift – or be shunted towards – a zombie Apocalypse of gleeful “burn it all down because its too corrupt to save!” As Burton observes, these alt-right groups are:

At once nostalgic and nihilistic, this bleak form of atavism may be the ultimate religion of the Internet age. A brand of brothers who have never met, brought together in their cultic belief in nothing at all.

So to sum up, choose your poison. And quite honestly, none of it seems all that attractive from 30 thousand feet. Burton didn’t intend it to sound so. Her orthodox religious “bias” – which I affirm and celebrate – comes through in the language she employs to describe the situation.

She admirably – but fatally to this church pastor’s heart – restrains herself from offering a solution. And perhaps that’s the issue. The book ends at 30 thousand feet. No boots on the ground. My primary – only – gripe about it is that that is it repeats the problem of the other culturally savvy, theologically orthodox books that I have read on where we’re going. Burton is right, the Remixed generations aren’t coming back to us any time soon.

But if you’re confident that your institutional religion can do what a religion does, namely provide meaning, purpose, community and ritual, then perhaps a deeper dive into what that could look like in a Remixed age would be helpful.

Goodness knows we’ve been trying to crack that nut this past quarter century. Emerging church/Total Church anyone? We’ve had a few cracks at it, and we’ve cracked a few eggs in doing so as well. I’ve seen the victims of that zeal. I am one of them.

Our task is to fill those four rites with Christ. To fill them with something worthier and more life giving than the constantly tightening legalism that the Remixed intuitional movements seem unable to break free from, indeed which it seems to descend to in a quest to control all of the outcomes. Such movements are destined to become a political version of Whack-a-Mole, always on the look out for when nuance or compromise might rear their furry, round-bespectacled little heads.

We’ve got the rites, in fact we’ve had them for two millennia. Perhaps, like that astonishing time when they first came on the scene in the wake of the resurrection, it’s time to make them strange again.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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