Aiming for Abnormality — by Crystal Downing

Economy chart

Image Source: Markus Spiske, https://unsplash.com/photos/5gGcn2PRrtc

Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on November 18, 2020.

During the 1992 election, James Carville coined an infamous aphorism: “It’s the economy, stupid!” I thought of it as I read Tim Meuhlhoff’s CSR blog for October 19, which beautifully argues against an economic model of discourse, by which one pays or exchanges “evil for evil or insult for insult.” Communication for Christians, especially in the realm of politics, should instead be “abnormal.” I would like to build upon Meuhlhoff’s provocative word abnormal to suggest that abnormality should not only inform Christian political vocabularies (as well as scholarship about film), but also guide all followers of Christ as they communicate their faith.

Emphasis on economic exchange is, without a doubt, normal. From ancient bartering practices to the current stock market, humans depend upon exchange. In fact, language itself seems to function according to economies of exchange. Similar to presenting a quarter at the market in order to get chewing gum in return, we present a word like star or stupid in order to elicit an image or concept in return. Exchange is so basic to being human, in fact, that it shapes the way we understand religion. As I explain in Salvation from Cinema, “Many religions inculcate, if even unwittingly, some form of exchangism: do these works, you receive salvation; perform this rite, you become redeemed; behave this way, you attain Paradise; believe this doctrine, you escape damnation; follow these principles, you achieve Nirvana; kill these infidels, you enjoy the pleasures of heaven; say these words, you become born again. It is no wonder, then, that theologians and religion scholars often assess salvation from cinema in terms of exchange: transcendence or valuable insight received in exchange for attentive viewing” (125).

Having earlier noted that the word exchangism was coined by philosopher Jacques Derrida, I proceed to explain that the famous founder of deconstruction contrasts “an economy of exchange” with the words of Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. . . . For if you love those who love you what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Mt 5:38-39, 46).1 Reading Christ’s words in a book by Derrida, I saw them in a new light. Jesus did not say, “Do not even pagans,”or “do not the heathen,” or “do not Pharisees do the same?” Instead, Jesus alludes to people literally engaged in an economy of exchange: tax collectors. Derrida argues that pure love, in contrast, operates according to what he calls “the Gift”: an abnormal event entirely undeserved and unexpected, with no taint of exchange.

Intrigued that a philosopher who once said “I rightly pass for an atheist” was aligning Jesus with the abnormal, I was forced to face exchangism in my own Christian rhetoric. Helping me in the process was Dorothy L. Sayers, who repeatedly proclaimed that the distinguishing feature of Christianity was salvation as a gift, not because of exchange, lest anyone should boast. As she puts it in a 1941 essay, “forgiveness has no necessary concern with payment or non-payment of reparations; its aim is the establishment of a free relationship.” And, as usual, she employs an abnormal metaphor to reinforce her point: “Nobody has to sit about being humiliated in the outer office while God dispatches important business before condescending to issue a stamped official discharge accompanied by an improving lecture.”2

Because she celebrated the abnormal Gift of God’s forgiveness, Sayers was distressed by exchangism in evangelical vocabularies, made most obvious through the quid pro quo of “if-then” arguments: if you accept Jesus into your heart and worship him with zeal, then you will receive comforting blessings in exchange. As she put it in 1941 when the London Blitz had driven many people to church, “one has a haunting feeling that God’s acquaintance is being cultivated because He might come in useful. But God is quite shrewd enough to see through that particular kind of commercial fraud.”3 Since it is normal to think of religion according to commercial exchange, the truth of salvation through Christ can be downright shocking.

Unfortunately, rather than proclaiming the abnormal Gift of God’s forgiveness, all too many Christians reduce belief itself to the quid pro quo of exchange, telling people if you believe in Jesus, then you are saved. The implication, of course, is that salvation depends upon what YOU do. As I grappled with this Derrida-driven conundrum, I came to realize, with the help of Sayers, that belief is nevertheless imperative. After all, the only way you can accept a gift is if you believe it has been offered to you. Otherwise, you don’t notice it, or else you think you’re being manipulated by the giver, who apparently wants something in exchange, which means it is no longer a true gift. Sayers therefore repeatedly emphasizes that it is Jesus Christ who saves us, not our belief. All we have to do is accept the gift. In fact, Sayers reputedly responded to the question “When were you saved?” with this abnormal answer: “When Christ rose from the dead!” It is no coincidence that C. S. Lewis read Sayers’s abnormal (and hence controversial) radio plays about Jesus every year until he died, proclaiming them to be one of the four most powerful influences on his spiritual life.

It is also no coincidence that my recently-released book on Sayers is called Subversive: Christ, Culture and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers. It’s about Sayers’s subversion of the normal through a determined fight against religious economies of exchange. It’s also about responding with love to the Giver of salvation, and how abnormal love should affect every aspect of our lives, including scholarship and politics: it’s NOT about economy, friend.

Footnotes

  1. Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (University of Chicago Press, 1995), 102, 106. The translator uses the KJV, which I have changed to the NRSV.
  2. Dorothy L. Sayers, “Forgiveness and the Enemy,” in The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers: Selections from Her Novels, Plays, Letters, and Essays, ed. Carole Vanderhoof (Plough, 2018), 39.
  3. Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” in Creed or Chaos? (Sophia Institute, 1974), 103.

2 thoughts on “Aiming for Abnormality — by Crystal Downing

  1. “the only way you can accept a gift is if you believe it has been offered to you”

    It is possible to _receive_ a gift without ‘belief’ in this sense. Anything given us while we are unconscious – or even merely unconscious of the gift – is still a valid gift. Examples: blood transfused into an unconscious patient; money paid electronically into an account; life given to a newly-conceived human. ‘Not noticing’ is not an obstacle to having and making good use of a gift.

    I feel a confusion exists (and is displayed in this instance) between ‘belief’ meaning intellectual acknowledgement, and ‘belief’ meaning ‘faith’; faith in the biblical sense of dependence on the gift. An unconscious person may still depend on the gift of blood; my solvency may depend on the gift of money, and we have all depended on the gift of life since our conception (though it is possible never to consider or accept that gift intellectually). Can faith be unconscious? Certainly. If my salvation depended on my conscious dependence on everything Jesus has given me, I would be lost. I shall never (in this life, and most probably in the life to come) understand all that salvation is and means for me. We are privileged, living in Anno Domini, to understand more of it than Abraham could have done, but his faith – however unconscious he was of the Gift – saved him as much as ours does us.

    The Gift may be offered to us in different forms, further muddying the concept of what we think we are accepting. Abraham was accepting a son, a nation of descendants and a land to possess; Matthew was accepting a strange preacher who said “Follow me”; the brigand on the cross was accepting the presence of a better man than he, with a future he did not expect to have. Fortunately the Gift is his own Way, and does not depend on our understanding.

    The obstacle to faith is not failing to ‘give’ our believe, but rather it is our dependence on something else.

    • A reply from Crystal Downing:

      Clive’s astute response reinforces my point: when Christians interpret “belief” according to principles of exchange, they duplicate the tactics of most religions. Jacques Derrida suggests that even forgiveness can fall into an economy of exchange: I forgive you because I need your love or I forgive you in order to free myself from anger. In “The Gift of Death,” Derrida describes such forgiveness as counterfeit:

      “The moment the gift, however generous it be, is infected with the slightest hint of calculation, the moment it takes account of knowledge or recognition, it falls within the ambit of an economy: it exchanges, in short it gives counterfeit money, since it gives in exchange for payment.”

      Derrida therefore believes that a pure gift is impossible, because, as soon as someone consciously offers a gift, she reinforces an economy of exchange through the satisfaction garnered by offering it. Significantly, Derrida later started calling God “the Impossible,” eventually coming to trust in “the possibility of the Impossible.” Indeed, a pure gift is impossible for fallen humanity to give, but not to receive. That is because all things are possible for God, including gifts for which we are oblivious, as Clive suggests.

      So when I say that “the only way you can accept a gift is if you believe it has been offered to you,” I am trying to show how belief can be still be operative apart from exchangism. After all, the Bible repeatedly emphasizes the importance of belief. If we entirely bypass “intellectual acknowledgement” of Creator God, we eliminate the freedom of choice. As Wade authors like Lewis, Sayers, and MacDonald emphasized, God sends no one to Hell; all who are there choose to be, considering self-interest more important than their Creator. Lewis, of course, wrote “The Great Divorce” with this in mind. Accepting a gift is a choice, which relies on awareness (or belief) that it has been offered. At the same time, as Lewis makes clear, “intellectual acknowledgement” doesn’t mean “I get salvation because I paid the coin of intellectually correct belief.” Lewis illustrates this point in “The Last Battle” when he has Aslan comfort Emeth, the Calormene soldier who has been following the god Tash his whole life, with these words: “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.” As Lewis puts it in “Mere Christianity,” the Bible assures us that “no man can be saved except through Christ.” However, “we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.” Though Emeth had been worshipping the only god he knew, it was still his choice to seek that god’s will to the best of his understanding and ability—offering himself as a gift—rather than to merely pursue his own self-interests. This, of course, is very similar to Christ’s point in Matthew 25:31-46.

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