The production of religious sentiments is never divorced from their wider political, philosophical and cultural logics. They do not arise out of a vacuum, neither do they stand out on their own. Whether scholarly or popular, religious discourses are inextricably attached to, and irreducibly bound to the ideological conditions which simultaneously moulds their presentation and creates the ground for their reception. In other words, a certain ideological climate functions as a priori framework affecting both the presentation and the reception by means of determining the content of enunciation on the one hand and cultivating the conditions of its reception on the other. While postmodern thinkers such as Adorno and Horkheimer and Richard Rorty are unyielding in their position that we live in a post-ideological world, Slavoj Zizek, Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson insist that we are still living under ideology.
James Crosley’s Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism is instructive in this regard. In this book, Crosley astutely examines the spectral dominance of the capitalist ideologies on the historical Jesus scholarship. His study highlights the way ideologies of neoliberalism casts a spectral shadow on both academic and not so academic presentations of Jesus.
Crossley sees his project as building on Stephen Prothero’s book American Jesus, which, according to Crossley, offers different appropriations of Jesus in American culture. Borrowing Prothero’s phrase Crossley admits that his present book enumerates “a quest for the cultural Christ”. Instead of exegeting the biblical texts, Crossley exegetes both scholarly and popular presentations of Jesus by positioning them in a broad cultural context, which leads him to do an extended analyses of contemporary cultural politics and ideology. He locates Jesus scholarship within the peculiar cultural climate of postmodernism and its economic counterpart neoliberalism. Drawing on Fredric Jameson Crossley defines postmodernism as the cultural logic of the late capitalism or neoliberalism. Subsequently, his discussion on neoliberalism draws on the work of David Harvey to highlight some peculiar characteristics of the neoliberal order.
However, there is a surprising gap in the book. Although Crossley offers and extensive discussion on both postmodernism and neoliberalism, it is interesting to notice that he hardly spares time to offer a working definition of ideology at work in his ideological analysis. This lack of discussion is particularly astonishing, especially when the book claims to offer ideological analysis of the historical Jesus scholarship. Perhaps the readers need be acquainted with the theories of ideologies to fully appreciate the scope of Crossley’s book.
But, the key reason why, I believe, the gap is problematic is because ideology is a very vague term with varying usage. For example, Zizek identifies ideology in three key dimensions: ideology in itself, as a series of ideas, 2) ideology for itself, material manifestations (ideological State apparatuses), and 3) ideology in and for itself, i.e., social practices. Each of these terms could mean different things. And, also, Zizek’s conception of ideology is different from Chomsky, or David Harvey could mean something very different from say Terry Eagleton’s notion of ideology. Crossley takes what he can from Chomsky, Gramsci, Zizek, Jameson and Harvey to examine the cloud of neoliberal ideology over the historical Jesus scholarship.
Secondly, Crossley, by his own admission, owe much of his arguments to Gramsci. While Gramsci’s theory makes a significant contribution to the critique and study of ideology, there remain some theoretical issues. Gramsci believed that ideology obfuscates social relations. He understood ideology as an attempt at universalization and false externalization. So, a critique would denounce this false externality. Taken to its extreme, I suspect, if Gramscian critique has a function of negative epistemology. In other words, by overcoming false consciousness/knowledge, etc (negative epistemology), proletariat class would return to the full consciousness to recover and to reclaim the lost essence (positive ontology). The task of Gramscian analysis is to overcome the ignorance (false consciousness), to unmask and draw attention to the hidden essence. If people open their eyes they would see how things truly are.
But, what if they don’t? what if there is nothing to see? What if the role of ideology is to avoid this nothingness?
Slavoj Zizek, on the heels of Lacanian psychoanalysis, insists that what is hidden is not an essence but a void. There is no hidden essence. In other words, recovering or reconstructing an accurate historical Jesus is fundamentally an impossibility. Not because there was no historical Jesus but that each time the subject of Jesus is posteriori constructed, it tries to mask its own impossibility by the means of replicating the wider social, cultural and political world in describing Jesus. So, for Zizek, the function of ideology is to mask this fundamental void, to make itself appear whole. It does so through Cynical attitude towards the ruling ideologies. To take a classical example, a traditional critique of ideology might argue that we need to tell “truth to power”. The problem with this stance is that a) it assumes that those in power are ignorant and b) It assumes that correct knowledge (facts/data) will change their/our perspective.
However, Zizekian critique of ideology adds a new twist to this adage. It is not simply about telling truth to power, but about fully acknowledging that those in power already known the truth and choose to ignore it, nonetheless.
The epistemological (insistence on knowledge and knowing) limitations of such critiques come to fore when put under the scrutiny of ideological investigation. Some of this is indeed present in Crossley’s book. He puts the contemporary presentations of Jesus under ideological examination to point out the manner in which a critique itself might be coloured by the subject of the criticism. Especially if we take Zizek’s argument that ideology is central in the formation of social beliefs and practices then it becomes inevitable to ask how might the ideology of late capitalism is embedded in contemporary appropriations of Jesus in general?
I believe that applying Zizek’s critique of ideology directly to Crossley’s work would extend his analysis to see the subtleties of how ideology function. But, no doubt that Crossley has offered a clear examination of the role contemporary ideological climate, including postmodernism and its economic counterpart neoliberalism, play in shaping the way Jesus is represented in both scholarly and not so scholarly literatures. By way of ideological analysis, he asks: How might a presentation of Jesus be embedded in the prevailing ideologies of the late capitalism?
It is difficult to overlook the significance of Crossley’s book. The postmodern condition, along with the free market capitalism, has posed a great challenge to the Christian Scholarship. For Christianity to survive, it will have to make sense to whom it is addressed. But this quest for survival, as Crossley shows, is also a temptation to buy into the dominant ideology of its time.
Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism, demonstrates that the most published work on the lives of Jesus produced are in some ways a self-portrait, embodying cultural, social and political values to sit well with the reigning cultural ideal. Crossley poses a challenge to the ways majority of Christian scholarship – Bart Ehrman, NT Wright, Bruce Malina, etc – has been ‘influenced by their political and social settings’ peddling the ideologies of the existing order and sustaining the power relations, a central claim of the book.