Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Rushkoff's Testament -- a different read on Abraham

Buzz had been building for some time: media theorist Douglas Rushkoff was writing a comic book series based around stories from the Bible. This would be an edgy more mature GenX style presentation under DC's Vertigo label -- not what older generations expect from a comic book at all.

Some quick background here -- Rushkoff is a media theorist and cultural analyst. Much of his work explores the implications of current technology on culture. One of his major running themes is the subversion of coercive powers that deny the individual the capacity to make a decision.

And so he weaves his favorite themes into two parallel stories: one a retelling of Abraham taking his son Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him (however Rushkoff changes the story -- he writes it as though Abraham's old god, Molech, was trying to reassert control over the patriarch -- at the last minute, YHWH intervenes, providing the ram to be sacrificed); the other story takes place in a somewhat futuristic world where all young men are required to have a chip implanted in their bodies, for a quick muster to military service. In this storyline, Alan, a research scientist who helped develop the technology, wrestles with whether to ask his son to have the chip implanted -- he senses sinister forces afoot, and doesn't want to subject his son to them.

Running alongside (or "outside the frames") of both stories, we see the perspective of the deities -- Molech and Asarte converse about their frustration with YHWH's intervention in both story lines. And Asarte delivers the powerful closing line "They're just boys yet. They know nothing of the war that awaits them."

The art is pretty rich -- especially the depictions of Molech and Asarte. It has a bit of a classic mid to late 80's feel that plays into the mythic power of the story.

Here's what I like about this project -- Rushkoff takes scripture seriously. In an interview with newsarama
he says: “I’m really sick and tired of the Bible being used by fundamentalists as a way to shut down thinking and inquiry. It just stinks, and it goes against the very premise of the Bible—which is about weird revolutionaries who fight for autonomy against all sorts of oppression. I can’t help but think if any of these people actually read the Bible, they’d rise up against their ministers and smite them on the spot.

“So my big slap in the face to these fundies is to say ‘hey, the Bible isn’t so important because it happened at some moment in history. The Bible is a big deal because it’s happening now. In every moment.’ Every day, I am Cain, discouraged by the way someone else—some Abel—gets credit and attention for doing the same thing I did. We are still living in a world where the monetary system invented by Joseph and Pharaoh enslaves us in lifetimes of debt, where we lose track of our most core desires and disconnect from our compassion."

Look past his gross misunderstanding of "fundies" to the thrust of what he's saying. He's shouting out "The Bible is relevant -- it's real -- the stories apply to the reality that I live now" and I believe that by implication he's saying that God does intervene in our lives! Now this is big -- he's not rejecting faith -- he's rejecting religion that seems to have lost its power. He's rejecting pontifical figures who moralize but lack authority. But he's not rejecting God. Here we see a hungering for a faith that is participatory -- a faith that calls us to the adventure of living.

This yearning is spelled out later in the interview: "The underlying message and concern in all my work is that people come to recognize that we are creating reality, together. The world we live in is not a creation of some God—some pre-existing condition. It is a living thing. Meaning emerges through our interactions. So it’s basic ‘reality hacking,’ with a bias towards empowering people to take up their pens or brushes or computers and begin co-authoring our world."

Now here's the problem -- Rushkoff's understanding of the world is essentially dualistic -- a good and evil locked in a life and death struggle for all of eternity and we need to hop in and participate because it depends upon us. In raising great reminders, he misses some basic points -- like the point of grace -- like the point of depravity -- like the point of God's sovereignty. Rushkoff seems to think that fundamentalists (or as I prefer, "evangelicals") don't think about the mystery, don't wrestle with the bloody and naughty bits of the Bible -- and that has been an error we've fallen into. But by the same measure, Rushkoff misses out on some clear teaching of scripture that challenge the predominant cultural zeitgeist (of which he is a part): human beings are corrupted and in need of grace; God doesn't need us for anything.

Contra to common assumptions -- evangelicals love mystery and paradox -- and Rushkoff misses this. We believe in human depravity but also in human dignity (made in the image of God). We believe that God doesn't need us, but he delights in our actions of faithfulness. We beleive that God is fully sovereign, but that humans are free agents who are responsible for their actions. We believe that evil must be opposed and resisted, but that God's ultimate victory is secure.

So even though I think the theology is way off, I'll be reading Rushkoff's series with interest -- probably with a wry smile. It'll be an interesting sci-fi story, if nothing else. It'll probably engender scads of misunderstandings about scripture that I'll have to deal with. But it will also challenge people to take the living God seriously. And fot that reason alone, it will be worth following.

Soli Deo Gloria