Just when I thought that I am done with writing about Mormons I came accross Harold Bloom’s article in last Sunday’s New York Times opinion colum conflating Mormons, Southern Baptist, and in fact, Methodist, Protestants, you name it, in one great American religion, to give us a lesson on how we should vote next time.
In fact, in this opinion article Mr. Bloom, a professor of English at Yale, follows up on his 1992 book The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (Simon and Schuster, 1992). A self-declared “Gnostic Jew,” Mr. Bloom offered his 1992 book as “a work of religious criticism,” in the tradition of Emerson, Nietzsche and Freud. In the author’s view, a religious critic in this tradition is not only a critic but also a prophet; therefore, with this article he continues his prophetic mission began with the aforementioned work.
Professor’s Bloom thesis in his 1992 book, assumed in the current article, is that the controlling principle of the American religion is the primacy of one’s individualistic/solitary experience of God, and this principle is best epitomized in two major American religious denominations (otherwise quite opposed): the Mormons and the Southern Baptists. However, according to Bloom, the same principle can be seen at work in all American denominations, including among Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Methodist, and so on. In the author’s view, this emphasis on personal encounter with God necessarily leads to a form of Gnosticism. In this context, Gnosticism does not have primarily negative connotations, Bloom himself adopting a modified form of what he calls Jewish Gnosticism. In America, even Catholics and Jews, and indeed, even atheists are more Gnostic in their deeper beliefs than normative.
As shapers of identity for the two religions the authors focuses on the figures of Joseph Smith and E.Y. Mullins. In the attempt to delineate the peculiar character of the American religion, if such a thing exists, the author conflates all American religions in one, which, in his view, has nothing to do with historic Christianity:
…Joseph Smith, whose highly original revelation was as much a departure from historical Christianity as Islam was and is. But then, so in fact are most manifestations of what is now called religion in the United States, including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God Pentecostalists and even our mainline Protestant denominations.
Reading these lines I could not but wonder in amazement what factors enter Mr. Bloom’s equation to end up with such conclusions. Here are a few:
What is religion? Professor Bloom reiterates his earlier affirmation that neither the Freudian definition of religion as neurosis nor the Marxist view of religion as opiate for the people fit the American context. Rather, he proposes that religion is “the poetry of the people” (good or bad).
What is the role of religion? To deal with the reality of death.
How does the American religion deal with the reality of death? By “literalizing an ancient metaphor.”
In other words, to deal with the reality of finitude the American religion (which I believe should be more properly called simply “religion”) takes the ancient metaphor of the resurrection of Jesus and literalizes it affirming a personal experience of the resurrected Jesus in the way the disciples had during the forty days before Jesus’ ascension (I am not quite clear why not with Jesus after ascension).
I am not going to debate the nature of Jesus’ resurrection. I am a Christian and that makes it obvious where I stand in this matter. But I am going to dispute the issue of “literalization.” More precisely, the issue of the timing of literalization. If a literalization did occur, my question is when did it occur? Is it something new or ancient? Becasue, let’s say, unless someone doubts the authenticity of the Nicea-Calcedon creed, which affirms the death and resurrection of Jesus under Pontius Pilate, the literalization must have occurred at least by that date, which is quite ancient. But, what about more ancient texts, such as Paul’s epistles? Let’s consider:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you–unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
As witnesses of Jesus’ life and resurrection the disciples must have been “grand literalizers” to stand for the truth of the resurrection with the price of their lives. Since it is said that eleven out of the twelve were executed for their testimony, no doubt, they must have been in love with literary devices!
As a literary critic Mr. Bloom may be naturally drawn towards a deeper understanding of culture, which is the object of his professional study, and thus be ultimately drawn toward a study of the American religion as a main shaper of culture. But I assume that an apt critic of anything must take the pains not only to distance himself from that anything, in order to see the common features in what he criticizes, but also to engage in some degree of “thick description” of that thing, to also see the particularities of the parts. Indeed, seen from afar, I can conflate the moon with the wheel of my truck under the same category of roundness, but as I get closer to each, I may figure out that I deal with different categories categories of roundness.
Reading Mr. Bloom’s article I am inclined to be lieve that hsi work is no more than an aesthetic creation for the sake of making a political statement. Maybe this is why his prophetic abilities leave room for improvement. In 1992 he predicted that by 2020 Mormonism will become the dominant religion in the Western U.S., that America will not see another Democrat for president in the foreseeable future, and that fundamentalism will take over about everyting. Of course, the two Clinton mandates as well as the current Obama presidency, and the fact that the evangelizing Mormons did not manage to convert the entire Western U.S., have something to say about Mr. Bloom’s prophetic methodology, which is the foundation of his prophetic ministry.
In the end, what can I say? After all, this is America, and Mr. Bloom did nothing else than to exercise “the competency of his soul, under personal ideology, in politics.” I propose that at least this time we should all follow his advice to vote our wallet (that is, our economic interest) rather than our values (flag, country, love for fetuses, etc., to use Mr. Bloom’s parlance). That is, we should ask “are your wallets thicker now than four year ago? Are you more solvent now than four years ago?” And then, vote.