Fight the Power: Banksy, External Authorities and Justification by Faith Alone

In case you missed it. From the LATimes: The artist known as Banksy is famous […]

JDK / 10.20.10

In case you missed it. From the LATimes:

The artist known as Banksy is famous for his stealth graffiti projects that mix social commentary and subversive street art. In keeping with his rebel persona, Banksy’s guest “appearance” on “The Simpsons” on Sunday night [Oct. 10] was an unpredictable affair that mixed the anarchically humorous and the deadly serious. Banksy helped to design the opening credits for Sunday evening’s episode… Banksy created an extended sequence that took viewers on a hellish tour of sweatshop labor in Asia. Workers are shown toiling away on animation cels and merchandise tie-ins for the hit Fox series. (It just so happens that “The Simpsons” outsources much of its animation to South Korea.) The final image shows the Twentieth Century Fox logo standing big brother-like over a militarized police zone.


The discussions resulting from the airing of this opening sequence have almost exclusively centered on the question as to how Fox would allow (much less fund) such a disparaging portrayal of itself. Well, with coverage here, here and here, the cynics of the “any publicity is good publicity” school certainly have their answer, but so do advocates/fans of what is known as “culture jamming.” Whatever the case, I think that anytime a Unicorn gets taken down a few notches, it’s fine with me:)

From our perspective, stay with me here, the freedom that was given to Banksy and the willingness Fox showed is the same as that afforded Christians towards the church by the Doctrine of Justification by Grace through Faith alone. Part of Fox’s freedom, no doubt, came from their confidence that many of the critiques were unwarranted; however, there was something deeply Protestant about the whole pre-episode episode.

As the vestiges of Christendom continue to fall away and (as if we needed a survey to tell us that), many people–uncomfortable with the lack of controls (read: Law) placed upon those to whom the Gospel is proclaimed—have beaten a hasty retreat into the arms of external authorities. These authorities–like circumcision did in Galatia–seem to provide safe-haven from the storms of post-modernity, pluralism, and Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Fifty years ago, Gerhard Ebeling, also observing this sort of weakness, commented that it manifested in a variety of ways:

“A new theological dogmatism and traditionalistic confessionalism, high-church clericalism and sacramentalism, an over-simplification through insistence on pietistic edification or else through catchword theology, radicalism, confessional rhetoric, etc.”

Not much has changed.

Far from championing some sort of neo-Gnostic Huffington Post type “spirituality of hugging” on one hand, or a moralized “follower of Jesus” on the other, this emphasis on Justification by Faith Alone and, in particular, the proper distinction between Law and Gospel, provides courage to proclaim the death and resurrection of Christ in the face of a world that is chained to unbelief masquerading as pious religiosity, to a world that is enslaved to the Law. That we would be unable to afford God His due without recourse to if/then purpose-driven eudamenism, formulaic religious structures, or baptized sociological dogma is a curse of the Fall. BUT, that people abuse and turn the Gospel into vague sentimentality, hedonistic license or empty, self-serving platitudes is not as bad as turning it into a Law. Misused freedom is a problem; the absence of freedom is a tragedy.

In light of the Gospel–the proclamation that God justifies the ungodly–we can confess that the church is a place where faithless zombies are brought to life by the preaching of the Gospel. It is not a community, not a movement, not an institution or an association; it is not a place where people come to be instructed, motivated, or organized. By hearing the Gospel each week (if not every day!), church is a place where unbelieving people–which includes long-term Christians–are preached to, so, in the words of John 20:30 that [they] may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing [they] may have life in his name.”

Despite the fears of those who have reverted to a romantic “golden age” confessionalism, float into the “cloud of unknowing,” or worse, swim the Tiber/Bosphorus, the hope and future of the Gospel message remains as vibrant and sure as it ever has, because it never rested on a-priori commitments to doctrines, theories, churches or creeds, but on the ex nihilo–out of nothing–creation of Faith “in the one he has sent.” What Faith does is not so much assent to propositions as make a confession about the relationship about two people: you and God. As Martin Luther was famous for saying, the content of Christian theology is deus iustificans et homo peccator: the sinful human and the justifying God, period. Anything else may be awfully spiritual–hence marketable, relevant and/or coercive–but it is not uniquely Christian.

In the 12th century, Anselm of Canterbury (of cur deus homo fame) characterized ours as fides quaerens intellectum: faith seeking understanding; however, as Oswald Bayer has pointed out, from a Protestant perspective, this is not entirely correct. We are not so much seeking understanding by faith as we are tentatus quaerens certitudinem: the tormented/judged/attacked person seeking certainty. Certainty does not come by subscribing to a confession, membership in an institution, a set of beliefs about certain doctrines or theories of systems of authority; it comes by Faith alone, and faith comes by hearing—Paraphrasing Psalm 107: Let the redeemed of the Lord say, Fight the Power.