Behind the Barricades with Lenin? Making Sense of the Marxist Turn to Christianity in the Literature Classroom

By Harris, Mitchell M. | Christianity and Literature, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Behind the Barricades with Lenin? Making Sense of the Marxist Turn to Christianity in the Literature Classroom


Harris, Mitchell M., Christianity and Literature


During the spring semester of my third year in graduate school, I began hearing strange grumblings from the underground about two notable Marxist scholars of the early modern and premodern periods converting to the Christian religion. Why, so many around me were asking, would the most radical of radicals relent to that oppressive and hegemonic institution, the Christian Church? To that point in life, I had not given much thought to the philosophical and ideological correspondences of what at the time seemed--at least, to me--to be two disparate worldviews. Marxism was unequivocally materialist, political, and antireligious, or so I thought. Who can, after all, forget its chief architect's famous dictum that religion was the "opiate" of the masses? In our time, however, the ascendancy of this dictum was suddenly being questioned by Marx's own followers, some of whom were converting publicly to the Christian faith, and I was intrigued by the thought of these two scholarly converts being sojourners of sorts, making their way through a number of postmodern spiritual "religions" before finding their permanent home in a full-blown orthodox and "hegemonic" Christianity. What did this Western institution have to offer these Marxist materialists that other religions did not?

At the time I was asking this question, I also had begun to hear that Terry Eagleton was reevaluating the significance of his Catholic upbringing in his autobiography, The Gatekeeper; French philosopher Alain Badiou was arguing that the Christian experience was a necessary means to reintroduce the invaluable and indispensable concept of "Truth" in philosophical discourse; and the Slovenian psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek was writing at length about the Marxist need to ally with Christianity in order to ensure the survival of the materialist critique, claiming that "there is a direct lineage from Christianity to Marxism" and that "Christianity and Marxism should fight on the same side of the barricade" (The Fragile Absolute 2).

I was intrigued by the allure of Christianity for its sudden and strange bedfellows, so I began to read what these theorists were writing. If nothing else, I felt that I might learn a little something from some fairly intelligent and deeply respected intellectuals, even if their interests in the Christian religion were not reflective of my own. They surprised me. I was struck by the intensity of their focus on the messianic message at the heart of the Gospels and Pauline epistles. As a graduate student who found himself caught between the invisible bullets of "containment" and "subversion" I was awakened to a theoretical lexicon that would speak instead about truth and historical ruptures. Certainly, their theology is something most wary Christian scholars will categorize as "bad theology" but these same Christian scholars also would do well to concede that it is a much better theology than, say, New Age relativism. After all, the theology of Eagleton, Badiou, and Zizek is, in certain respects, no more radical than the theology of other critical theorists Christian scholars are wont to flock to, like Rene Girard or Paul Ricoeur. Girard himself, for instance, failed to come to terms with the notion of the Atonement of the Cross while working out his mimetic theory. Indeed, one of his chief proponents, Gil Bailie, has gone so far as to suggest that the doctrine of Atonement is "not only logically incoherent" but "morally and theologically inadequate as well" (37). Ricoeur's philosophical hermeneutics, while vastly more conservative than that of Derrida or Hans-Georg Gadamer, still permits its proponents, because they are beckoned to the freedom of the hermeneutic process itself, to fall into the tempting lure of cultural relativism: everything is interpreted and everything is interpretable.

In contrast, the materialist alignment with Paul's messianism is not intended to destroy Christianity (indeed, the materialists never make this their primary point of argument), but to save it from the slew of relativist philosophies that threaten to occlude it from the postmodern theoretical matrix altogether. …

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