Ideology and Its Discontents (an Apology for Eutyches)

Maybe you’ve noticed this trend too: Lena Dunham’s Girls, despite critical acclaim, has suffered from reviewers […]

Will McDavid / 9.11.14


Maybe you’ve noticed this trend too: Lena Dunham’s Girls, despite critical acclaim, has suffered from reviewers saying it’s not racially diverse enoughGame of Thrones has been lambasted for its sexism and weak female characters. The Cosmopolitans has been written off for lacking socioeconomic variety.

Such things can be painful and troubling to watch, and sometimes it’s best not to view them, perhaps not even to screen them. But such criticisms, for me, are also strangely reminiscent of the one-dimensional cultural lenses prevalent in the Christian world. Drugs are bad, so watching media which contains drug use should be avoided. Affairs are bad, so Madame Bovary was listed on the infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Sexual attraction to adolescents is horrible, so sober-minded moralists in Britain and France banned Nabokov’s Lolita from their countries. Perhaps understandably; Madame Bovary might normalize adultery, just as Girls might reinforce people’s perverse tendency toward social homogeneity. But the worries about imitation may be misguided – the social world of Girls is sometimes scarcely more attractive than the dark psyche of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. And outright dismissal on the grounds of any perceived offense may lead us to overlook the benefits of the whole. Recently, Aronofsky’s Noah took liberties with the Bible’s original account, distorting, as some saw it, the truth of God. But the film reflected upon God at a level of depth to which its Christian critics have rarely attained.

I wonder what these moralists, many Christians, were (and still are) trying to accomplish. One reason would be the assumption that we mimic things we read or view. This assumption is spurious – Requiem for a Dream, for example, made me more scared of drugs than all the parents and pastors in the world. Boogie Nights attenuated me to the fallacies of seeking meaning through sex or success. Two ideas that Christian moralists who try to control our media consumption miss: (1) that humans tend to rebel against things you tell us to do, and (2) that sin, when it is portrayed accurately and artfully onscreen, leads to revulsion. And (3) that “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Matthew 15:11). As DZ has written, “Sin flows inside-out rather than outside-in.”


Whenever we perceive that we have authority and an audience – even when that authority is well-grounded – the same impulse to control, the same ignorance of our audience’s agency and reactivity, and the same failure to trust the audience’s consciences and sensibilities arises. The laws of society are still “holy and just and good”, but they’ve shifted from conservatism’s respect for authority and deference to history toward liberalism’s ideals of tolerance and equality – again, all are equally “holy and just and good”, or seem so to me. Along with constant of goodness, the other constant is our proclivity toward using these laws to criticize others and build up ourselves; those who know the law well enough and are smart enough may dispense with Solzhenitsyn’s wisdom and use their knowledge to draw the line separating good and evil in such a way that I am in the right, and you are in the wrong.

There is the same sense of “never-enoughness”, too. Sara St. Martyn Lynne, for years a tireless supporter of women’s rights, was forced to resign from the board of a camp for girls, on account of her association with a (cis) women’s-only music festival, which excludes transgender women. Like the poor abbot Eutyches (3rd-4th century), who fought tirelessly against the Nestorian heresy, until history outpaced him and he was banished for monophysitism.

atheistsFor practical purposes, a good definition of an ideologue might be anyone who views someone transgressing their ideology as wholly condemned. Like poor Eutyches, benevolent father of hundreds of faithful monks, cut off from home and sacraments and unity because he couldn’t honestly come in line with the diophysites.

So I wonder, since most of the constellation of political views falling broadly under the category ‘progressive’ is (1) morally sound, (2) doesn’t require a traditional faith, and (3) is clearly sounder ground than the ideology of health and wealth, how many characteristics of the old Christianity it will start to display. Sometimes it conflicts with business piorities – Hawks owner Bruce Levenson is selling his team after suggesting it boost season ticket sales by advertising more to white people – and sometimes there are inner conflicts, like the Eutyches’s exile or Lynne’s. However things go, conservatives would do well to remember that they had (and still do) a similar fixation on ideological purity, and liberals do well to remember that tolerance – in every sense of the word – is a historically central, and immensely valuable, part of their platform.

Randall Munroe over at XKCD drew a comic featuring a two-sentence conversation. Person 1: “Personally, I find atheists just as annoying as fundamentalist Christians.” Person 2: “Well, the important thing is that you’ve found a way to feel superior to both.” Turns out there’s really no way out of the political line-drawing game (I’ve just drawn my own) – Lord, have mercy.